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

WCF 19: Of the Law of God

Dear Church Family,

When it comes to interpreting and applying God’s Law, many questions arise. For instance, I have heard non-Christians ask, “If you claim to believe and follow the Bible, then why do you eat shellfish?” Some Christians even ask, “If I am saved by grace, then what does the Law of God have to do with me?” Still others erroneously look to the Scriptures as an economic or political guidebook for our nation. Amidst all of this confusion, the teaching of chapter 19, “Of the Law of God,” in the Westminster Confession of Faith is a great help, and answers many of these questions.

I have written previously about the believer’s relationship to the Law of God and how we are to learn to delight in it. And, I have also written about how to apply and interpret the law of God using the three different types of law and the three uses of the law. I encourage to check out those links; however, here we will have a simple summary and overview of our lesson from the adult Sunday school class on the 19th chapter of the confession.

WCF 19.1 – The Origin and Continuance of the Law of God

If God is holy and just, then the Law of God must be part of His nature. That is to say, we ought not to think of the Law of God as some abstract set of random principles. Rather, the Law of God is part of who God is. Or, we might say, the Law of God originates in the ‘mind’ of God. Thus, in the Garden of Eden, God gave Adam a law, as a covenant of works, requiring of him personal and perpetual obedience (Genesis 2:16-17). This law which was given to Adam, continues to be written on man’s heart – even since the Fall – and continues to be binding on all human beings who are created in God’s image (Romans 2:14-15).

WCF 19.2 – The Ten Commandments are the same Law that was written on man’s heart

We might think of the process of communication of God’s Law in this way: the Law exists in the ‘mind’ of God; since man was created in God’s image, God’s Law was written on his heart; this same Law continues to be a perfect rule of righteousness and was delivered on Mount Sinai in the Ten Commandments (James 2:10-11). Thus, Jesus summarized the Law of God with the great and foremost commandment to love God, and the second greatest commandment to love one’s neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40).

This Law, written on man’s heart, and then written on tablets of stone is often referred to as “the moral law.” The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes this teaching: “the rule which God at first revealed to man for his obedience, was the moral law” (WSC 40). And, “the moral law is summarily comprehended in the ten commandments” (WSC 41).

WCF 19.3 – Ceremonial Laws

As a church ‘under age’ – that is, awaiting the full revelation of God through Jesus Christ – God, in the old covenant, gave Israel ceremonial laws. These ceremonial laws are of two different kinds. One kind of ceremonial law deals with worship; these prefigure (or point to) Christ (Hebrews 8:13-9:1; 10:1). The other kind of ceremonial has to do with moral duties; these kinds of ceremonial laws often highlighted the idea of God’s people being distinct and separate from the rest of humanity (1 Corinthians 5:7; 2 Corinthians 6:17).

Since Jesus Christ has broken down the barrier of the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile through His death on the cross (Ephesians 2:14-16), these ceremonial laws have been abrogated (or abolished) in the new covenant (Colossians 2:13-17). Because Jesus Christ offered His body, once for all, as an atonement for sin (Hebrews 10:10), the animal sacrifices of the old covenant are no longer needed; that which they pointed to has come. And, because the gospel has gone out to Jew and Gentile alike, the distinction between Jew and Greek has been done away with (Galatians 3:28-29; Colossians 3:11). God’s people are no longer defined by a distinctive culture (dress, diet, etc.) but by faith in Jesus Christ.  

WCF 19.4 – Civil Laws

In the old covenant, God’s people were also a political body with various judicial laws by which the nation-state of Israel was governed. These civil laws expired with the political state of God’s people at the coming of Christ (Ephesians 2:11-22; Matthew 5:38-39). God’s people are no longer a commonwealth (or independent nation). Yet, even as these civil laws no longer apply to any particular nation-state or political entity, these laws are helpful to instruct us concerning what justice and fairness look like (1 Peter 2:13).

WCF 19.5 – The Moral Law

As was noted in the first two paragraphs above (WCF 19.1 and 19.2), all human beings – believers and unbelievers alike – continue to be bound by the moral law; the ten commandments bind all people, at all times, to obedience (Romans 3:31; 13:8-9; 1 John 2:3-6). Christ, in the Gospel, does not dissolve the Law of God, but actually strengthens our obligation to it (Matthew 5:17-19).

Summary (WCF 19.1-5)

Briefly, we may summarize the teaching of the first five paragraphs of this chapter under three main points:

(1) The moral law, which is summarily comprehended in the ten commandments, was written on Adam’s heart and given to Moses on Mount Sinai. This moral law is a perpetual and perfect rule of righteousness, forever binding on all people.

(2) The ceremonial laws, which were given to Israel as a church under age, were typological and instructive. They point us to Christ and remind us of God’s call to holiness, and have been abrogated in the new covenant.

(3) The civil laws, which were given to the commonwealth of Israel as a nation-state, expired with that political state of Israel. They are no longer binding, yet they teach us of our general equity (fair and just) obligations.

WCF 9.6 – The Three Uses of the Moral Law

The sixth paragraph of this chapter is rather lengthy and requires close examination; however, the main teaching may be summarized this way: there are basically three uses of the moral law (the ten commandments).

(1) Civic Use – Goad to civil righteousness – the ten commandments serve the purpose of God’s common grace in the world at large to restrain sin and promote righteousness. Thus, for believers and unbelievers alike (as human beings created in God’s image yet fallen into sin), the moral law may function simply as a behavioral hedge (e.g., Romans 2:14-15).

(2) Pedagogical Use – Tutor to drive us to Christ – the ten commandments also function as a tutor that leads us to see our need for Christ. In this way, we see how the law condemns us as law-breakers and shows us our need for the one perfect law-keeper, Jesus Christ (e.g., Romans 8:3-4; Galatians 3:23-24).

(3) Teaching Use – Rule of life – for believers, and only for believers, the ten commandments also provide a guide for righteousness and holy living (e.g., 1 Corinthians 7:19; Romans 7:12, 22, 25). Thus, believers will learn to delight in God’s Law (Psalm 1:2; 40:8)

WCF 9.7 – The Law sweetly complies with the Gospel

This chapter of the confession concludes with a reminder and an admonition that we ought never to think of the Law of God as being contrary to the grace of the Gospel (Galatians 3:21). Rather, one of the promises of the new covenant is that the Lord will teach His people to walk in His ways, according to His commandments (Ezekiel 36:27; Hebrews 8:10; Jeremiah 31:33).

Conclusion

As Christians, we should remember two things concerning the moral law (or ten commandments). If we remember these two things, we will be able to avoid much confusion in the Christian life. First, no one is able to be justified in God’s sight by the works of the law; through the law comes the knowledge of our own sin (Romans 3:20) and our need for Christ and His righteousness (Romans 8:3-4). Second, if we have come to love Jesus, we will keep His commandments (John 14:15); those who have been born of God keep His commandments (1 John 5:2-3).

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

WCF 18: Of Assurance of Grace and Salvation

Dear Church Family,

Just about every Christian that I have ever met struggles with feelings of doubt and a lack of assurance. In conversation and counseling, many believers wonder, “How can I know for sure that I’m saved?” Or, “How could I have sinned in such a way and claim to be a Christian?” Personally, it has been my experience that someone who never doubts their salvation hasn’t actually considered or recognized the seriousness of their own sin. For fallen and sinful human beings, the gospel seems too good to be true – so, it is understandable that every Christian will doubt or lack assurance at one time or another.

Yet, when those times come, it is important for one who professes faith in Christ to look to the Scriptures to find the proper foundations of assurance. Too often Christians base their assurance either entirely on the objective truths of Scripture (God’s promises in His Word) or entirely upon their own subjective experience. Helpfully, chapter 18 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, “Of Assurance of Grace and Salvation,” summarizes the teaching of Scripture on assurance of salvation by pointing us to the three biblical pillars of salvation. But first, we begin with the reality of false and true assurance.

WCF 18.1 – The reality of false and true assurance

In its teaching on assurance, the confession begins by explaining that “hypocrites and unregenerate men may vainly deceive themselves with false hopes and carnal presumptions of being in the favour of God, and estate of salvation.” For example, the Lord rebuked the people of God in the old covenant in the midst of their false assurance and hypocrisy (Deuteronomy 29:14-21; Micah 3:11). Jesus also condemned those hypocrites who claimed to perform miracles in His name, but yet did not belong to Him (Matthew 7:22-23).

At the same time, true assurance is attainable. As believers grow in their faith, they will learn to exult in hope of the glory of God (Romans 5:2) – a hope that does not disappoint, but brings joy and perseverance (Romans 5:45). In fact, the fundamental purpose of the first epistle of John is to help those who already believe in the name of the Son of God to know that they have eternal life (1 John 5:13).

In his commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith, G.I. Williamson provides a succinct summary of how to tell the difference between true and false assurance:

As A.A. Hodge succinctly tells us, (a) true assurance begets unfeigned humility; false assurance begets spiritual pride (1 Cor. 15:10; Gal. 6:14), (b) true assurance leads to increased diligence in the practice of holiness; the false leads to sloth and self-indulgence (Ps. 51:12-13, 19), (c) true assurance leads to candid self-examination and to a desire to be searched and corrected by God; the false leads to a disposition to be satisfied with appearance and to avoid accurate investigation (Ps. 139:23-24), and (d) the true leads to constant aspirations after more intimate fellowship with God, which is not true of false assurance (1 John 3:2-3). It is not the strength of one’s conviction which proves the validity of his assurance, but the character of one’s conviction. A man may be fanatically sure that he is saved, but this may mean only that he is ‘sincerely wrong.’

 

WCF 18.2 – The Three Pillars of Assurance

And that brings us, to the three biblical pillars of assurance. For my part, it helps me to understand and remember these three pillars by thinking of them in terms of them being objective, objective and subjective, and subjective. Hopefully, this will make a bit more sense as we go along.

(1) God’s Word (objective)

This first pillar of assurance is described in the confession as “the divine truth of the promises of salvation.” These are the promises of grace and salvation that we may clearly and objectively find in God’s Word. These promises include such things as the unchangeableness of God’s oath and His inability to lie (Hebrews 6:17-18); His promise to perfect (or complete) the work that He has begun in the individual believer (Philippians 1:6); the Lord’s promise to not fail or forsake His people (Deuteronomy 31:6).

(2) Loving Obedience (objective and subjective)

This second pillar of assurance is described in the confession as “the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made.” These are the good works which God prepared beforehand for His people to walk in (Ephesians 2:10). I refer to these good works as both objective and subjective because others may see these good works (Matthew 5:16), but only we (and God who knows the heart) may know if these good works are done in sincerity and faith (Acts 15:8). Thus, if we keep God’s commandments and have a love for the brethren, we may gain assurance that we have come to know Him and have passed out of death into life (1 John 2:3; 3:14).

(3) The internal witness of the Holy Spirit (subjective)

This third pillar of assurance is described in the confession as “the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are children of God.” The internal witness is a very subjective thing that can only be observed and described by the one who experiences it – a sort of peace and joy that surpasses comprehension (Philippians 4:7). The Holy Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are children of God (Romans 5:15-16).

When seeking to find true assurance of grace and salvation, a believer ought to look to God’s Word and His promises, to his own life for a desire and ability to keep God’s commandments, and to his own heart for a peace and joy of salvation.

WCF 18.3 – Assurance is not of the essence of faith, but it is our duty to diligently seek it

Some Christians erroneously believe that a person who doubts or lacks assurance cannot be truly saved; however, the confession reminds us of the Bible’s teaching that assurance is not of the essence of faith. That is to say, a person may have true faith, but also doubt or lack assurance (Mark 9:24; 1 John 5:13). Yet, believers ought to diligently seek to make their calling and election sure, to grown in their hope, confidence, and assurance (2 Peter 1:5-11). And, the believer ought to pursue this assurance by attending to the ordinary means of grace: the word, sacraments, and prayer (WSC 88; Psalm 73; Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 2:42-47). The benefits (or fruit) of true assurance are peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, love and thankfulness to God, and strength and cheerfulness in obedience (2 Corinthians 7:1; Titus 2:11-14; 1 Peter 1:17-19; 1 John 3:2-3)

WCF 18.4 – Four causes for a believer’s assurance to be shaken or diminished

Finally, the confession gives four causes for which a true believer may doubt or lack assurance: neglecting to persevere in assurance through attending to worship and the ordinary means of grace (Hebrews 10:23-25); falling into some special sin as King David did (Psalm 51:8-14); being confronted by some sudden or vehement temptation as the Apostle Peter was (Matthew 26:69-72); or God’s decision to withdraw the light of His countenance as He did with Job (Job 1-2).

These are important reminders for every believer as we seek to be more and more firmly planted in an assurance of grace and salvation. And, it is important to remember that though shaken, true believers will never succumb to utter despair. With Job, we declare, “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him” (Job 13:15). With the Apostle Paul, we confess to knowing the secret of contentment, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). For the LORD’s lovingkindnesses never cease, and His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; His faithfulness is great. The LORD is my portion; therefore, I have hope in Him (Lamentations 3:22-24).

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

WCF 17: Of the Perseverance of the Saints

Dear Church Family,

In our most recent adult Sunday school class, we examined  chapter 17 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, “Of the Perseverance of the Saints.” For most Christians, when they hear of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, they immediately think of the popular saying, “once saved, always saved.” That phrase is a good summary of biblical doctrine of eternal security; however, it can also tend to fall short in two areas. First, out of context, the statement “once saved, always saved” has led people to deny the necessity of a changed life and the fruit of good works as evidence of salvation. Second, “once saved, always saved” is sometimes interpreted as ‘justification by decisionism’ – the idea that a person’s salvation is dependent upon their having ‘made a decision for Christ.’

WCF 17.1 – The Definition and Source of Perseverance

So, while “once saved, always saved” may be a good and simple definition of the perseverance of the saints, without further elaboration and explanation, it can lead to misunderstanding. Thus, the Westminster Confession of Faith begins its explanation of this doctrine by explaining the definition and the source of the perseverance of the saints.

The definition of the perseverance of the saints is relatively simple: a person perseveres to the end and is eternally saved, or has eternal life. As the Scriptures declare, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36).

The source of perseverance is God’s acceptance in His Beloved (justification), effectually calling, and sanctification by God’s Spirit. In this regard, the Westminster Confession of Faith rightly roots the doctrine of perseverance not in a sinner’s response to the gospel, but to God’s saving work, alone. So, Jesus explains that He gives eternal life to His sheep and they will never perish; no one is able to snatch them out of His hand (John 19:27-29). The Apostle Paul explicitly roots God’s continuing work of perseverance to His initial work of salvation: “I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good wok in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).

For those whom God has accepted in Christ, effectually called to Himself, and set apart by His Holy Spirit, He will also persevere them to the end. They can never fall away. To deny this truth is to deny the power of God in salvation.

WCF 17.2 – The Grounds of Perseverance

With this understanding of the definition and source of the perseverance of the saints (perseverance in eternal life rooted God’s work of salvation), the confession goes on to list at least six grounds of salvation:

(1) The free and unchangeable love of God, from which flows the immutability (unchangeableness) of the decree of election. In love, God predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:4-5).

(2) The efficacy of the merit of Jesus Christ. Because Christ Jesus is the One who died, was raised, and is at the right hand of God interceding for us, nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:33-39).

(3) The efficacy of the intercession of Jesus Christ. The Son of God always lives to make intercession for those whom He has saved (Hebrews 7:15).

(4) The abiding of the Spirit within believers. God has given His Spirit to live in us forever (1 John 4:13).

(5) The abiding of the seed of God within believers. The Word of God takes root in the heart of those who trust in Christ; and the word of God endures forever (1 Peter 1:22-25).

(6) The nature of the covenant of grace. For those who belong to Christ, God’s covenant promises will never fail (Genesis 15; Jeremiah 32:40; 2 Corinthians 1:19-20).

These six grounds of the perseverance of the saints ought to produce in God’s people an assurance of salvation, but we shall examine that doctrine of assurance in the next lesson.

WCF 17.3 – The very real consequences of a believer’s sin

Unfortunately, the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints (aka “once saved, always saved”) has led some people to believe that God never disapproves of His people or their actions, that He can never be displeased with those who belong to Him. However, the Bible teaches that God disciplines those whom He loves (Hebrews 12:6).

Just so, the final paragraph of this chapter in the confession explains how the doctrine of perseverance does not negate the very real consequences of our sin. In his weakness, the Apostle Peter denied Christ three times (Matthew 26:70-74); the world, our own flesh, and the devil may entice believers into sin. And, just as king David sought to cover up his sin of adultery by murdering Uriah (2 Samuel 11), believers may continue for a time in their sin.

By their sin, believers also incur God’s displeasure (Isaiah 64:5-9; 2 Samuel 11:27), grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), become deprived of some graces and comforts (Psalm 51:8-12), have their hearts hardened (Isaiah 63:17; Mark 6:45-62), wound their own consciences such that they grieve over their own sin (Psalm 32:3-4), hurt and scandalize others (2 Samuel 12:14), and bring temporal judgments upon themselves (Psalm 89:31-32; 1 Corinthians 11:32).

Conclusion

The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints must never be used as an excuse to sin – as if God doesn’t care how His children believe and behave. As we rest trust in the promise of God for eternal life, we also trust in promise of God to guide, correct, and discipline us.

Understood correctly, the biblical doctrine of the perseverance of the saints ought to give those who trust in Christ alone for their salvation, great comfort, hope, and assurance. Indeed, God will complete that which He has begun in us!

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