One of the core convictions of Baptists of all kinds and from all times has been that “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” This conviction calls forth the commitment to religious liberty that has characterized Baptist witness in the English-speaking context for the last four centuries. While other groups have also confessed a commitment to liberty of conscience (the Westminster Confession and Savoy Declaration also contain this article), Baptists have more consistently applied this belief to argue for religious liberty for all. The General Baptist Thomas Helwys asserted this in his handwritten address to King James I in the front of an edition of A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (1612) preserved in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. This inscription, which led to Helwys’ subsequent imprisonment where he died in 1616, reads in part,
“The King is a mortall man and not God, therefore hath no power over ye immortall soules of his subiects, to make lawes & ordinances for them, and to set spirituall Lords over them.”
This is the central assertion of chapter 21 of the Second London Confession. Paragraph 2 begins with the words that “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” Paragraph 1 describes the Christian liberty that is foundational to the idea of liberty of conscience as purchased and provided by Christ, and paragraph 3 cautions against the abuse of Christian liberty. However, it is paragraph 2 that provides the main assertion of this chapter by grounding liberty of conscience in the truth that God alone is Lord of conscience.
In laying the foundation for the idea of liberty of conscience, the confession grounds Christian liberty of conscience in the liberty purchased by the work of Christ. Paragraph 1 outlines ten areas where the believer has been set free by the work of Christ. Believers are free from:
(1) the guilt of sin,
(2) the wrath of God,
(3) the rigour and curse of the law,
(4) the present evil world,
(5) bondage to Satan,
(6) the dominion of sin,
(7) the evil of afflictions,
(8) the fear and sting of death,
(9) the victory of the grave, and
(10) everlasting damnation.
In addition to these freedoms from negatives, believers are positively free in their access to God and in their “yielding obedience,” which comes “not out of slavish fear, but a child-like love and willing mind.”
All these freedoms are said to be true of all believers of all time, but new covenant believers have expanded liberty not experienced by believing Jews living under the Old Covenant. New Covenant believers are free from the ceremonial law, have greater boldness in approaching God’s throne of grace, and have a fuller experience of the “free Spirit of God.” These are all glorious truths regarding the freedom of a Christian in the New Covenant. They stand alone as reasons for the child of God to rejoice, but they also serve as the grounds for a crucial Baptist teaching.
Having established that all believers are free in the gospel of Christ from sin, Satan, death, and the law, who then can bind the conscience of a believer? The confession asserts the only proper conclusion when it states that “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” Therefore, the Christian is free from the “doctrines and commandments of men.” Of course, this freedom from human teaching is only in as far as that teaching is contrary to the Word of God. What is being asserted is that God’s Word alone is the ruling standard by which all human teaching is to be judged since God alone binds the conscience of believers. Although the confession does not apply this teaching directly to human governments or ecclesiastical courts, it clearly applies to those contexts. To believe and obey the doctrines and commandments of men is described as a betrayal of the principle of Christian liberty and as destroying not only liberty of conscience but reason also.
Paragraph 3 reads like the “God forbid” (AV) or “By no means!” (ESV) of Romans 6:1. In Romans 6, Paul anticipates a corruption of his teaching on God’s grace and forgiveness of sins as a license to sin. His strong negation that the teaching of Christian liberty from the law is echoed here by the framers of the confession. Christian liberty should not be used as an excuse to “practice any sin” or “cherish any sinful lust.” This would be a perversion of the gospel and would end in the judgment of the one so destroying the true goal of Christian liberty, which is freedom from sin to serve the Lord for the rest of our lives.
Based on the idea of Christian liberty of conscience, Baptists have historically contended for religious liberty. We saw that the General Baptist Thomas Helwys did this at the beginning of the seventeenth century, but this was also true of the Particular Baptists who endorsed and recommended the Second London Confession of Faith when they assembled in September of 1689. In 1682, Hercules Collins wrote a book arguing for regenerate church membership entitled Some Reasons for Separation from Communion of the Church of England. Closely tied to the New Testament teaching that the church is to be made up only of baptized (immersed) believers is the idea that God alone is the Lord of the conscience. Collins argued thus for the authority of Christ over His church:
"Christ hath given full power to his Church, as such to Preach the Gospel publickly, administer Ordinances, and to officiate in other Matters, relating to their Meeting in God’s Worship; which, if we should decline at the Command of Men, this would be to regard men more than Christ, which we dare not do. Is it better to obey God or man, judg ye? Were the sayings of two Worthy of old, Act. 5."
The reason churches must be made up of believers only and that those believers must be immersed upon their profession of faith is that God alone is the Lord of the conscience. Collins puts it this way, “That none should be compelled to worship God by a temporal Sword, but such as come willingly, and none can worship God to acceptance but such.” No government can make a church. Therefore, the ideas of Christian liberty, liberty of conscience, and religious liberty are closely tied together. Churches are to be made up of genuine believers, and no state can create or compel this reality. This vision of the church thrives most in a free society in which religious liberty exists as a recognition of that tenet that “God alone is Lord of the conscience.”
Saturday 11th September 2021