The subject of Christian liberty, to the modern mind, is primarily one of practice or casuistry. The term itself has come to be associated nearly, if not, entirely in reference to the ‘adiaphora’ or ‘things indifferent’. What may I practice as a Christian? Is a certain practice forbidden in God’s word? If not, I am free to practice it. The mere mention of ‘Christian Liberty’ causes the mind to run to questions of alcohol, movies, clothing, make-up, certain holidays and traditions. It is refreshing then, to come the see how the framers of our confession understood and applied the subject of liberty to the believer. The matter of Christian liberty is far more doctrinal, spiritual, and glorious than it is often seen to be.
The word ‘liberty’ means to be free of constraints, to be in command of one’s life and actions, to be in bondage to no one and nothing. To be at liberty is to live without restraints, bars, chains, or prisons. It is the opposite of being enslaved or hindered. At its core, Christian liberty is freedom purchased by Christ, delineated in Scripture, and enjoyed under the present influence of the Holy Spirit.
The chapter before us is a very careful treatment of the matter of the conscience and Christian liberty. As we examine these truths in this chapter we will do so under two primary headings. Our Freedom In Christ Defined; secondly Our Freedom in Christ Defended (defended against legalism; defended against license).
OUR FREEDOM IN CHRIST DEFINED
This chapter begins with these words, “The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel, consists:” Liberty, properly understood, consists of two things – what we are freed from and what we are free unto. The confession wants us to know what we are freed from and what we are freed unto.
Six glorious statements then follow declaring what the believer is freed from:”
1. the guilt of sin
2. the condemning wrath of God
3. the rigour and curse of the law
4. this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin
5. the evil of afflictions
6. the fear and sting of death, the victory of the grave, and ever-lasting damnation.
The second question that arises from the confession is, what are we freed unto? If you went from living in prison to living in a little room where you locked the door and stayed inside all day long, you will have missed the point of liberty. We are not merely freed from that which held us in bondage, we are free to enjoy a new vigorous life in Christ.
Our confession states, “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.”
Too often an adherence to the Lordship of Christ or God-fearing obedience is cast in terms that are antithetical to the gospel. The Christian must not fall under the law’s condemnation as they strive to please the Lord. Some believers in striving to obey the Lord find themselves under perpetual condemnation in their conscience. The believer’s pursuit of holiness ought not to be a source of grief knowing that they are accepted in the Beloved.
The liberty we have in Christ is not a self-focused or selfish liberty. We are freed from the condemnation of the law, not from the essence of God’s law or will for our lives. Those who most understand their true liberty will use that freedom to pursue a life well-pleasing to God. The third question to answer under this heading has to do with the connection between the believer’s liberty under the old and new covenants. Here the confession states,
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.
Did believers under the Old Covenant enjoy what we call Christian liberty? That is, were the benefits of Christ’s life and death and resurrection applied to them in spiritual and practical ways so that there existed among our Jewish brethren a true sense of their freedom from the guilt of sin, the terrors of the law? The answer is yes and no.
As believers in the grace of God, who looked upward for a righteousness outside of themselves, they did enjoy the liberty and freedom which Christ has purchased for his people. However, their enjoyment of this liberty was as those under the influence of a tutor as is laid out in Galatians 3:23. The New Covenant is truly a better covenant. The outer shadowy types have given way to the fuller light of the gospel.
This brings us to our second major consideration.
OUR FREEDOM IN CHRIST DEFENDED
One of the prime concerns of the confession is the matter of 'who is Lord of the conscience?' Who or what rules over the consciences of God’s people, compelling them action?
This burden was not unique to the time of the Reformation but is present in Paul’s writings as well. If Christ is our liberator and our King, then we must not become the slaves of men or of traditions.
There is all the difference in the world between faithful allegiance to the duties laid out in Scripture and a slavish adherence to the rules and regulations of society, or some teacher or organization.
Who has sway over you and why? There were many at the time in which this document was written who had the Roman Catholic Church and its traditions as Lord of the conscience. There were others who said that, “No, the Lord of the conscience is the state.” There are others who live as though my tradition or my church group is the Lord of my conscience. I follow them no matter what they say. And then there were others who were saying, no one and nothing is over my conscience other than the dictates of my own heart. Against these extremes our brethren took up their Bibles and their pens to speak the truth of Holy Scripture.
Under this heading then, we want to see our freedom in Christ defended first of all against legalism, and secondly against license.
OUR FREEDOM IN CHRIST DEFENDED
Legalism is not a strict and conscientious life of obedience to the commands of Scripture.
Legalism, biblically speaking, has three prongs to it. First of all it is the mentality of a works righteousness. The idea that my good works earn my salvation or secure my salvation before God. Secondly, and this is closely related, it is enforcing practices that have been fulfilled in Christ (circumcision, dietary laws, and Jewish festivals).
Our confession clearly sates,
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.
These truths are well summarized in the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:23, “You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men.” This truth is emphasized again in the words of Galatians 5:1, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”
There is secondly the need to warn against a spirit of licentiousness. The work of the enemy and the remaining sin in our hearts is such that if we will not be brought low by legalism, we will destroy ourselves with license.
The framers of the confession were wise then to add:
They who upon pretence 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 warnings in the New Testament are multiplied regarding this concern. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1)
“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” (Gal. 5:13)
The doctrine of Christian liberty is never an excuse to sin. The claim, “God as the Lord of one’s conscience”, is a call to walk in the light of the revelation that he has given and in accordance with the indwelling Spirit of holiness. What then do we make of the matter of the adiaphora? By what standard is the believer to judge whether they can participate in certain matters? Several questions ought always to be considered in the matter of the practical application of these doctrines: Is what I am about to do a matter of faith? Can I pray about it? Ask God’s blessing on it? Can I do what I do with the glory of God as my aim? Will what I am about to do bring me into bondage? Will what I am about to do put a stumbling block before one of my brothers or sisters? The answer to this question may not forbid the practice, but it may affect when and where I practice. Will what I am about to do affect my witness to my neighbour? Will my refraining or participation in a certain activity prove and obstacle in my witness to the lost? Has the practice I am embracing proven to be good or harmful to my never dying soul? Christian liberty does not mean that I am free from such prayerful concerns. We ought to bring all of the practical questions concerning life, what I will and will not do, under the light of the word of God. We are to act in faith at all times. We are to seek the glory of God at all times. We are to follow our consciences at all times. We are to guard our own hearts at all times. We are to defer to our brethren at all times. We are to remember our witness to the world at all times.
Wednesday 1st December 2021