Westminster Twenty: Of Christian Liberty, and Liberty of Conscience

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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 curse of the moral law (Tit. 2:14; 1 Thess. 1:10; Gal. 3:13); and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin (Gal. 1:4; Col. 1:13; Acts 26:18; Rom. 6:14); from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation (Rom. 8:28; Ps. 119:71; 1 Cor. 15:54–57; Rom. 8:1); as also, in their free access to God (Rom. 5:1–2), and their yielding obedience unto Him, not out of slavish fear, but a child–like love and willing mind (Rom. 8:14–15; 1 John 4:18). All which were common also to believers under the law (Gal. 3:9, 14). 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 (Gal. 4:1–3, 6–7; 5:1; Acts 15:10–11); and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace (Heb. 4:14, 16; Heb. 10:19–22), and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of (John 7:38–39; 2 Cor. 3:13, 17–18).

First, it is important for us to see this section following right after the teaching on the law of God. The law of God sets the boundaries within which we may exercise our liberty. Having set this context, the Confession goes on to define what our liberty is—a very important thing to do. If we assume that we know what we mean by liberty, hidden definitions will plague our discussion.

Liberty means, first, freedom from guilt, God’s judgment, and the condemnation of moral law. It also means we are delivered from the wickedness of the world, the hatred of Satan, and the dominion of sin. We are also freed from the consequences of such things—afflictions, fear of death, the dominion of death, and Hell.

We are also freed to certain things—we are free to approach God, and free to obey Him from love and willingness, not from fear. In these respects, we are like our brothers in the Old Testament.

But our liberty is greater than theirs. We are freed from the ceremonial requirements of the law, and we have a more abundant display of God’s grace upon us than they did. Note in this that “liberty” always implies a standard, and this standard always brings with it an antithesis. This means that he who says “free from” must also assert a specified “free to.” Liberty always necessitates, therefore, an appeal to a source of law.

2. God alone is Lord of the conscience (James 4:12; Rom. 14:4), and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in any thing, contrary to His Word; or beside it, in matters of faith, or worship (Acts 4:19; 5:29; 1 Cor. 7:23; Matt. 23:8–10; 2 Cor. 1:24; Matt. 15:9). So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience (Col. 2:20, 22–23; Gal. 1:10; 2:4–5; 5:1): and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also (Rom. 10:17; 14:23; Isa. 8:20; Acts 17:11; John 4:22; Hos. 5:11; Rev. 13:12, 16–17; Jer. 8:9).

Because God is our Lord, He alone is Lord of the conscience. This means that, in matters of faith and worship, men cannot command us in His name when He has not spoken. Obedience to men is certainly permissible, but it is prohibited to obey men as though they had the right to bind the conscience in the same way that God does.

We are required to compare what men say with the Word of God, and may not simply assume that they must have a good biblical reason for teaching what they do. This teaching against “implicit faith” is directly aimed at a doctrine of the Roman church, which required this of those under her authority.

Thus: we are freed from men, and freed to God.

3. They who, upon pretence 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 (Gal. 5:13; 1 Pet. 2:16; 2 Pet. 2:19; John 8:34; Luke 1:74–75).

The end or purpose of Christian liberty is the pursuit of holiness. Those who wave the banner of Christian liberty so that they might do whatever they want have not understood the doctrine at all. The point is not to drink or smoke or dance according to your own whims, but to do so before the Lord, with the increase of joy and holiness obvious to all.

4. 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 pretence 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 (Matt. 12:25; 1 Pet. 2:13–14, 16; Rom. 13:1–8; Heb. 13:17). 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 (Rom. 1:32; 1 Cor. 5:1, 5, 11, 13; 2 John 10–11; 2 Thess. 3:14; 1 Tim. 6:3–5; Tit. 1:10–11, 13; 3:10; Matt 18:15–17; 1 Tim. 1:19–20; Rev. 2:2, 14–15, 20; Rev. 3:9), and proceeded against, by the censures of the Church, and by the power of the civil magistrate (Deut 13:6–12; Rom. 13:3–4; 2 John 10–11; Ezra 7:23, 25–28; Rev. 17:12, 16–17; Neh. 13:15, 17, 21–22, 25, 30; 2 Ki. 23:5–6, 9, 20–21; 2 Chron. 34:33; 15;12–13, 16; Dan. 3:29; 1 Tim. 2:2; Isa. 49:23; Zech. 13:2–3).

There are limits (obviously) to civil and ecclesiastical authority, but those limits are not established by the desires of private spirits. A man may withstand them only if he has warrant from the Word of God to do so. If he does not, then he may not. There is an important two-fold division. We may not oppose lawful power, and we may not oppose lawful exercise of power. In other words, we must distinguish the two. A lawful power may require an unlawful thing. Not only does Christian liberty not mean antinomianism, it also does not mean anarchy.

According to the Confession, men may live and die as heretics and do so in peace. But if they publish such opinions as in themselves are likely to disrupt public order and obedience, or if they publish a particular doctrine in such a way as to bring about that disruption, then they may be called to give an account of themselves. If they do not heed the rebuke then they may be restrained or punished, in keeping with the nature of the offense.

Depending on the offense, the action against them may be taken by the Church, or by the magistrate, or both. The American Presbyterian Church, in a misguided moment, deleted the last phrase which says, “and by the power of the civil magistrate.” They did this at their First General Assembly in 1789. The move was misguided because they were assuming that everyone would retain a residual faith in certain basics, whether by the light of nature or by Christian consensus. They could not have foreseen, for example, the butchery of the modern abortion industry.
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