The Baptist Confession on Christian Liberty and the Conscience
Modern Christians seem to marginalize the doctrine of Christian liberty. The subject is rarely discussed in any systematic theologies. Even practical books on Christian living often gloss over the topic. For some, the doctrine of Christian liberty is just not that important in relationship to other doctrines of the faith. For others, the doctrine of Christian liberty is too controversial. Consequently, many modern Christians fail to give this doctrine the attention it deserves.
In contrast, the Reformers and the Puritans saw the doctrine of Christian liberty as central to the Christian faith. Martin Luther wrote an entire book on this subject.1 John Calvin devoted an entire chapter in the Institutes to “Christian Freedom,” and he argues that any summary of gospel teaching must include this topic.2 John Owen referred to Christian liberty as “the second principle of the Reformation.”3 And the Westminster divines and Baptist Puritans agreed by according the doctrine of Christian liberty an entire chapter in our Confession of Faith.4
I believe the Reformers and Puritans had Scriptural warrant for their emphasis upon Christian liberty. Following the claims of Jesus Himself (John 8:32-36), the apostle Paul assured believers that Christ had saved them for freedom (Rom. 6:18, 22; 2 Cor. 3:17; Gal. 5:1, 13). In light of this, it is vital that the modern church regain a proper understanding of and appreciation for the doctrine of Christian liberty. We must not allow potential controversy or abuse to keep us from enjoying the blessings Christian liberty was designed to attain.
The Nature of Christian Liberty (2LBC 21.1)
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 rigour and curse of the law, and in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin, from the evil of afflictions, the fear and 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 child-like love and willing mind.
All which were common also to believers under the law for the substance of them; but under the New Testament the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of a 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.
The first section of chapter 21 consists of two paragraphs. The first paragraph describes Christian liberty under the gospel. The second paragraph alludes to Christian liberty prior to the gospel under the law, and then compares the two. For our purposes, we’ll consider the teaching of this entire section under three headings:
The Basis of Christian Liberty
The paragraph begins by identifying Christ’s redemptive work on behalf of believers as the basis of Christian liberty (John 8:36; Gal. 3:13). This implies two complementary truths. First, all men outside of Christ are in bondage and do not enjoy true freedom. Second, only those who believe in Christ, whom Christ purchased with His own blood, can truly enjoy the benefits of Christian liberty. What are those benefits?
The essence of Christian liberty
The essence of Christian liberty may be viewed from two perspectives:
Negatively, Christian liberty is …
Firstly, freedom from the guilt of sin, both subjective and objective guilt: “freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the rigour and curse of the law” (John 3:36; Rom. 5:1; Gal. 3:13). Secondly, Christian liberty is freedom from the power of sin: “delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin” (Gal. 1:4; Eph. 2:1-3; Col. 1:13; Rom. 6:14-22). Thirdly, Christian liberty is freedom from the punishment of sin: “from the evil of afflictions,5 the fear and sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation” (Psa. 119:71; Rom. 8:18-28; 1 Cor. 15:54-57; Heb. 2:14-15).
Positively, Christian liberty is …
Freedom for Godward communion and for heartfelt obedience: “as also in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a child-like love and willing mind” (Eph. 2:18; 3:12; Rom. 8:15; 1 John 4:18).
In summary, Christian liberty consists in our freedom from the bondage of sin and our freedom to know and please God which Christ has purchased for all who believe in Him. But that raises an important question: Did Old Testament believers experience this freedom?
The Development of Christian Liberty
It’s common for modern Christians to downplay any fundamental continuity between the Old Testament and New Testament saint. Consequently, some view Christian liberty as the experience of only the New Testament believer.6 The Puritans, however, did not view the Old and New Testaments in terms of two distinct religions with different religious experiences. Rather, they saw an organic unity with development and progression. As a result, they saw the benefits of Christian liberty as “common also to believers under the law for the substance of them.” That is, the blessings of Christian liberty belonged to the Old Testament saint in essence. On the other hand, the Puritans also recognized that such blessings have been “enlarged” for the New Testament believer. Thus, Christian liberty as experience by the Old Testament saint and the New Testament saint differs not so much in kind but in degree.
In his exposition of the confession, Sam Waldron identifies Jesus’ words in John 8:32 as the key text for this understanding of Christian liberty.7 In that text, Jesus asserts that it is the truth of the gospel that sets men free. The Old Testament saint did know and embrace gospel truth (Gal. 3:8, 16). Therefore, the Old Testament saint experienced a freedom commensurate with the truth revealed to him. Conversely, the New Testament saint has received more gospel light than the Old Testament saint. Therefore, he no longer has to depend upon the shadows of Old Testament ceremonial laws. Now he can see the light of the glory of God directly shining from the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 3:7-4:6). Furthermore, the New Testament saint’s experience of Christian liberty is potentially, in the language of the Confession, “greater” and “fuller.”8
The Boundaries of Christian Liberty (2LBC 21.2)
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his word, or not contained in it. So that to believe such doctrines, or obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith, an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience and reason also.
Paragraph two addresses what modern Christians often have in view when discussing the topic of Christian liberty, namely, liberty of conscience. However, liberty of conscience is actually just one facet of Christian liberty. In particular, liberty of conscience addresses the boundaries of Christian liberty.9
Sola Scriptura and the Conscience
The second paragraph begins with an obvious yet profound assertion: “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” And according to the Confession’s opening chapter, God administers His lordship over the conscience through the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Thus, liberty of conscience is a corollary of sola Scriptura. It was this great truth that emboldened Luther to stand firm at the Diet of Worms.10
Human Tradition and the Conscience
If God’s word is the ultimate authority for a liberated conscience, then the believer is “free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or not contained in it.” This does not mean the believer is free from all appropriate forms of human authority (see paragraph 4 of Westminster Confession of Faith below). Nevertheless, it does mean that the believer is free from human authority when it usurps the place of divine authority (Matt. 15:9; Acts 4:19; 5:29; 1 Cor. 7:23). Two implications follow. First, we may believe human doctrines and obey human standards only insofar as they are consistent with God’s word (Gal. 1:10; 2:3-5; Col. 2:20, 22-23). Second, we should not require others to render implicit faith or blind obedience. That is, we should not demand another man believe and obey our teaching as biblical and divinely authoritative without seeking to demonstrate that such doctrines and commands are based on God’s word (Isa. 8:20; Acts 17:11; 2 Cor. 1:24; 1 John 4:1-6).
The Abuses of Christian Liberty (2LBC 21.3 [and WCF 20.4])
Historically, the doctrine of Christian liberty has been a bulwark against the authoritarian abuses of both church and state. Yet, history also demonstrates that one extreme may also give rise to another. Not surprisingly, some Anabaptist sects and radical revolutionaries used the doctrine of Christian liberty as a pretense for licentious and lawless conduct.11 As a result, the Puritans felt constrained to address these abuses of Christian freedom.
As a Pretense for Licentious Living
They who upon pretense of Christian liberty do practice any sin, or cherish any sinful lust, as they do thereby pervert the main design of the grace of the gospel to their own destruction, so they wholly destroy the end of Christian liberty, which is, that being delivered out of the hands of all our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him, all the days of our lives.
The main design and goal of Christian liberty is not freedom to do as I (autonomously) please (cf. 1Pet. 2:16; Gal. 5:18). This is nothing more than license to sin, and, as G. I. Williamson points out, “License is that vain and deceiving thing which Satan has offered as a substitute. It is the suggestion that sinful man be unrestricted in setting his own moral standards and doing his own will.”12 The design and goal of Christian liberty is, rather, freedom to do what pleases God. The liberated Christian has become the “servant of righteousness” (Rom. 6:18, 22).
As a Pretense for Anarchy
[And because the power 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 the 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, and by the power of the Civil Magistrate.]
As the brackets indicate, this last paragraph is found in the Westminster Confession but was omitted in the Savoy and the 1689. The reason for this omission was probably due to the teaching of the second half of the paragraph, which, in its original historical context, implied the establishment of one state church and allowed for the intervention of the state in punishing heresy. In other words, this paragraph was seen as an open door to the intrusion of the state in matters that are purely ecclesiastical. The American Presbyterians partly acknowledged this problem with the paragraph by omitting the last phrase with its proof-texts.
Properly interpreted, this paragraph is primarily concerned with the due recognition of God-ordained authorities, especially ecclesiastical and civil. Christian liberty does not free me from my responsibility to parental, ecclesiastical, or civil authorities. To the contrary, the believer must as a matter of conscience acknowledge God-ordained human authority (Rom. 13:5; Eph. 6:1; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 2:13-16). That’s the real burden of this paragraph, and that burden still needs to be sounded today. Even the second half and last phrase might be interpreted in such a way that does not imply the abuses feared by the Congregationalists and Baptists.13 Yet, because of potential abuse, I believe the best solution would have been to drop the second half of the paragraph and retain the first.
- Luther entitled the book Christian Freedom and dedicated it to Pope Leo X. In Philip Schaff’s estimation, the book “breathes the spirit of a genuine disciple of St. Paul” and “takes rank with the best books of Luther.” History of the Christian Church (1910; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 7:224. [↩]
- See Book III, Chapter 19 of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 1:833-49. Calvin opens this chapter by referring to the doctrine of Christian liberty as “a thing of prime necessity” and “an appendage of justification.” (p. 833). [↩]
- See Volume XV of The Works of John Owen (1850-53; reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), pp. 402-04. [↩]
- Dr. James Renihan is the Professor of Historical Theology at the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies and a modern authority on the 1689 Confession. He treats the chapter 21—“Of Christian liberty”—as the major heading under which chapters 22 through 30 are subsumed. [↩]
- When the Confession asserts that the believer has been freed from “evil afflictions,” it means punitive afflictions. Believers may and do suffer remedial and pedagogical afflictions (Psa. 119:67, 71). [↩]
- I am thinking primarily of the unbiblical dichotomy between the age of law and the age of grace advocated by some more classical dispensationalists. [↩]
- See A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 2nd ed. (Durham: Evangelical Press, 1995), p. 258. [↩]
- Of course, the New Testament believer’s actual experience of Christian liberty is not only conditioned upon the degree of gospel truth revealed but also upon his response to that truth. Thus, we must beware of the assumption that New Testament believers are automatically more spiritual than Old Testament believers (though on a corporate level this assumption is correct). Waldron’s caution is appropriate: “Beware of excessive depreciation of the privileges of Old Testament saints. They knew the truth and it set them free. As to their actual experience and holiness, some of them may have exceeded many New Testament saints! The fact that ‘ordinarily’ and corporately New Testament Christians have larger endowments of knowledge and the Spirit does not mean that they universally exceed the Old Testament saints in practical godliness or experience” (p. 260). [↩]
- Sam Waldron is certainly correct to see liberty of conscience as resting upon the foundation of Christian liberty since man’s conscience cannot be free until he has been loosed from the shackles of sin (pp. 260-61). It seems to me, however, that the paragraph is not addressing the believer’s conscience per se but rather the rule which may properly bind the believer’s conscience. [↩]
- Luther’s famous words were, “Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor the councils alone; it being evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound by the word of God: I cannot and will not recant any thing, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against the conscience. Here I stand. God help me! Amen.” (cited in Schaff, 7:304-05). [↩]
- The Anabaptists of Munster and the Fifth Monarchy Men of England provide historical examples. [↩]
- The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1964), p. 148. [↩]
- For example, the teaching of this fourth paragraph including the last phrase is defended by Robert Shaw (An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith [1845; reprint, Ross-shire, U.K.: Christian Focus Publications, 1992], pp. 209-12) and by G. I. Williamson (pp. 154-57). [↩]