WCF 20: Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience
It is a sad fact: liberated Christians aren’t always good at practicing Christian liberty. We struggle to break free from the hold of besetting sins. Sometimes we even justify sin on the basis of our freedom in Christ. And we are tempted to hold others to the same standards as us even on matters in which they are not bound by Scripture. This has always been so. But the last several years have made this weakness painfully obvious. Perhaps we don’t even consider Christian liberty to be very important. If you were writing a thirty-three point summary of the faith would you devote a chapter to the topic?
Our failure to practice Christian liberty is a tragic irony since in Scripture freedom is nearly synonymous with salvation—“For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1). Believers have been delivered from sin in order to freely obey God. So we may not allow ourselves to become enslaved again. We need to treasure our freedom in Christ and respect his sovereignty over the conscience.
Treasure Your Freedom in Christ
Christian freedom means at least three important things.
Christ Frees Believers from Sin and Condemnation
Sin advertises freedom but always enslaves. Like how human traffickers often entice their victims with promises of greater opportunities, sin promises life but leads to death (Rom. 6:23). Apart from God’s grace sin reigns in our bodies, making us obey its passions. Jesus said that “everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34; cf. Rom. 6:12, 14, 17, 20; Gal. 4:3).
But Christ has set believers free from sin’s guilt, God’s wrath, and the law’s curse. We live in this “present evil world” but it does not define us. Satan can trouble us but does not own us. Sin tempts us but does not dominates us. Afflictions plague us but only for a little longer. Death and the grave grieve us but Jesus has removed their sting and cancelled their victory. No longer condemned by sin (Rom. 8:1) and barred from God’s presence believers are accepted in Christ and have “free access to God.”
Christ Enabled Believers to Obey God Freely
From the beginning God promised his people that he would deliver us from our enemies that we “might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (Luke 1:74–75). Apart from Christ you can’t do that. Slaves obey only under compulsion out of fear of punishment. God doesn’t want us to serve him like that. The gospel of free grace in Christ says to every believer: “You are no longer a slave, but a son” (Gal. 4:7). Only God’s love for us and our love for him can make our service for him a delight (see Gen. 29:20).
Christ Frees Believers from the Yoke of the Ceremonial Law
Remember that the ceremonial laws were given to “a church under age” (19.3). So “there was a childish and slavish aspect to the tutelage of the law” (see Gal. 4:1–3).[i] But believers today have new freedom. Here was Paul’s plea to the “Men of Israel” of his day: In Christ “everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be free by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:16, 38, 39). Some church members continued to burden the early church with an unbearable yoke, insisting that believers must still practice circumcision and keep other ceremonial laws in order to be saved (Acts 15:1, 10). But the Spirit taught the early church that grace frees us from burdensome laws that have already served God’s purpose in pointing his people to the Savior Jesus.
The gospel of Christ might be summarized like this: “He was bound, so that we might be loosed from our sins.”[ii] And this salvation profoundly affects our calling. “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). Part of our service of others is recognizing God’s lordship over our sense of right and wrong.
Respect God’s Sovereignty over the Conscience
Only God may tell us how to think and what to do. So we must only submit “out of conscience” to God’s word. We may not allow ourselves to be bound by the will of anyone but God. At the same time God mediates his will to our consciences through means. Children honor their parents because God says so (Ex. 20:12). The church calls members to worship according to God’s law. A citizen who rejects civil authority “resists what God has appointed” (Rom. 13:2). “The powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased” are meant to work in harmony. We may disobey proper authorities only if they command us to sin. But we do so for God’s sake.
God’s sovereignty over the conscience also means that no one may require or forbid anything contrary to God’s word. Human authorities can only command consciences by truly imposing God’s will. This means that the church may not demand an “implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience.” This is hard for us because extra rules can make us feel safe, or morally superior. But because of God’s rule over the conscience no church has the power, for example to require or forbid homeschooling. No church may impose, even in an unwritten way, a dress code for worship, besides demanding the modesty that God requires (1 Tim. 2:9). The church may not declare it a sin to drink alcohol. The church should not speak with authority on the necessity or evils of vaccinations. The church should teach believers the principles of voting well but may not endorse a candidate. You have the liberty of conscience and the responsibility to employ reason in these matters. You should consider honoring human customs out of love, respect, prudence, and a desire to keep the peace, but not as if humans control your conscience. Church leaders, indeed, all believers, should clearly distinguish between advice and biblical admonitions. And we should be gracious when our advice is declined—believers have that freedom.
When it comes to the worship of God we must be even more careful. The history of religion is a sad story of setting aside God’s word in favor of human ingenuity. How can we hope to “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5) if we ignore how God tells us to worship him. When worship becomes choreographed—when its impact relies on charismatic personality, you can be sure it is no longer bound by God’s word. Man-centered worship is a subtle but deadly violation of Christian liberty.
Christian liberty is so important that violators are liable to church censures. No one has the freedom to sin or to sinfully threaten peace and order. This is why churches should have real membership and why members should pledge to submit to the church’s government under God and, if necessary, to its admonitions and discipline.
Christ has shed his blood for the freedom of God’s beloved children. “How vast the benefits divine which we in Christ possess! We are redeemed from sin and shame and called to holiness.”[iii] The Old Testament year of jubilee—which was seldom if ever honored—has come in Christ. Slaves of sin and hell have received full freedom and the great privilege of honoring the one who has purchased our liberty by his blood. If you have been freed by Christ, for God’s sake live as a free person.
William Boekestein pastors Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has authored numerous books including, with Joel Beeke, Contending for the Faith: The Story of The Westminster Assembly.
[i] Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, 261.
[iii] Augustus M. Toplady, Trinity Psalter Hymnal, 426.