WCF 20: Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience

Dear Church Family,

At the core of many of our moral questions concerning authority are two interrelated subjects: liberty and conscience. Moral questions like: To what authority must I ultimately submit? What is the proper role for church and civil authority in the Christian’s life? As a Christian, having been freed from the curse of the God’s Law, does that then mean that I have nothing to do with God’s Law anymore? What should I do if the laws and commands of earthly authorities conflict with Scripture? What about if they don’t conflict? Do I have to obey them?

Having considered the types and uses of God’s Law from chapter 19 in the Westminster Confession of Faith, the next chapter seeks to answer these questions. In our most recent adult Sunday school class, we examined these issues as they are explained in the next chapter: “Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience.” Here is a brief review and summary of that study.

WCF 20.1 – The Liberty which Christ has purchased for believers

In defining Christian liberty (the freedom which Christ has purchase for believers), the first paragraph of this chapter of the confession explains that these freedoms fall out in two categories:

(1) Common liberties for believers in the old and new covenant

First, there are those freedoms which Christ has purchased for all believers in all times, in both the old and new covenant. These freedoms include: freedom from the punishment of sin (Galatians 3:13), freedom from the power of sin (John 8:34-36), and freedom from the effects of sin (1 Corinthians 15:54-57). Additionally, we have not only been freed from certain things, but we have also been freed for relationship and righteousness, free access to God and loving obedience (Romans 5:1-2; 6:17-18).

(2) Enlarged liberties for believers in the new covenant

Second, there are those freedoms which are peculiar to God’s people in the new covenant era – those which the church has enjoyed since Jesus’ first coming. These freedoms include: freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law (Galatians 5:1; Acts 15:10-11), greater boldness of access to the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:14-16), and fuller communications of the free Spirit of God (John 7:38-39). In Jesus’ first coming and the advent of the new covenant, the increased freedoms required necessary adjustments for God’s people. As Chad Van Dixhoorn writes in Confessing the Faith, “Many conflicts in the New Testament were caused by men and women who were like freed prisoners who had only known life in jail and who could imagine no other.”

WCF 20.2 – The Liberating Effects of Christ’s Lordship

Even though believers are blessed to receive those freedoms purchased by Christ, it does not mean that they are freed from all authority. The Christian faith is not a religion of anarchy. Rather, God is Lord of the conscience. As we read in the New Testament, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor” (James 4:12). When the truth of God’s word came into conflict with the claims of religious earthly authorities, Peter and the apostles declared, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

So, in matters of faith and worship, the believer’s conscience is free from those doctrines and commandments of men that are both contrary to God’s Word and beside (added to) God’s Word. Unfortunately, in conflict with God’s lordship over man’s conscience, man has often sought to create conflicting or additional rules and imposed them on others. But, even though these sorts of things may have the appearance of wisdom, they have no value against fleshly indulgence (Colossians 2:20-23). We must always be careful, therefore, to steer clear of the danger of turning the traditions of man into commandments from God (Mark 7:6-8).

This portion of the confession also explains that “the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.” “Implicit faith” is a medieval and Roman Catholic doctrine that a Christian is required to believe whatever the (Roman Catholic) church believes; it is a requirement to implicitly obey the doctrines and commands of men. For protestants, our danger is in creating a ‘cult of personality’ or implicitly believing and following ‘celebrity pastors’ and spiritual gurus without biblical warrant or reason. Again, Chad Van Dixhoorn gives helpful warning and admonition, “…we have a tendency to rank the advice of men in the same league as the Word of God. It is knowledge of this sinful human tendency that makes the best shepherd wary of manipulating their sheep or lording their position over their people (2 Cor. 1:24; 1 Pet. 5).”

WCF 20.3 – The Limits of Christian Freedom

Jesus was not a revolutionary who declared, “Anything goes!” Christian freedom is not a license to sin. To this point, Paul is emphatic, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13). And Peter warned of the same danger, “Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God” (1 Peter 2:16). In reality, Christian freedom means that believers now have the ability to serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness (Luke 1:73-75).

WCF 20.4 – The Lawfulness of Civil and Ecclesiastical Power

The last paragraph in this chapter reminds us that those Christian liberties which Christ has purchase for us to not stand in opposition of the lawful powers of both the church and the state (the civil magistrate). Even while living under the authority of government that gave license to sin and often persecuted the church, the writers of the New Testament exhorted Christians to submit to the governing authorities – to pay taxes and render custom, fear, and honor to those in civil authority (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-16).

Likewise, just as God has established the governing authorities of this world which bears the sword, He has also established lawful authority in church which wields the power of the keys of the kingdom of God (Matthew 16:17-19; 18:15-20). Indeed, the Scriptures command us to obey our leaders in the church and submit to them, for they will give an account for the souls that have been entrusted to their care; in so doing, they will serve with joy and God’s people will enjoy the blessings of peace and sanctification (Hebrews 13:17).

Conclusion

As those united to Christ by faith, it is right and proper for us to rejoice and bask in those liberties and freedoms which Christ has purchased for us. We have been freed from the curse of the Law and have received eternal life in Him. Yet, at the same time, we must remember not to turn our liberties into license to sin. God alone is Lord of the conscience. And, He has provided the gifts of earthly civil and church authorities for our good; therefore, we must seek to submit and obey them.

Finally, though we may have all sorts of freedoms and liberties in Christ, it is important to also remember the admonitions in the Scriptures to not allow these freedoms to become a stumbling block to our fellow believers (Romans 14:13-23). Because we have been set free to love, let us then learn to use our freedom to love one another, in fulfillment of God’s law (Romans 13:8).

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch