Confessing Our Faith In the Culture – Chapter 21

Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience

Historical Background

  • Fall of the Roman Empire, 476 AD
  • Power vacuum
    • Rule by “divine right”
    • The vicar of Christ
    • Holy Roman Empire (800-1806)
      • Began with Charlemagne
    • Investiture
  • Protestant Reformation
    • Recovery of doctrine
      • formal principle (authority)
        • sola scriptura
      • material principle (teaching)
        • priesthood of all believers
  • Examples
    • Calvin’s Institutes
      For there exists in man a kind of two worlds, over which different kings and different laws can preside. By attending to this distinction, we will not erroneously transfer the doctrine of the gospel concerning spiritual liberty to civil order, as if in regard to external government Christians were less subject to human laws, because their consciences are unbound before God, as if they were exempted from all carnal service, because in regard to the Spirit they are free. …The question, as I have said, though not very obscure, or perplexing in itself, occasions difficulty to many, because they do not distinguish with sufficient accuracy between what is called the external forum, and the forum of conscience. What increases the difficulty is, that Paul commands us to obey the magistrate, “not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake,” (Rom 13: 1, 5). Whence it follows that civil laws also bind the conscience. Were this so, then what we said a little ago, and are still to say of spiritual governments would fall. To solve this difficulty, the first thing of importance is to understand what is meant by conscience. Institutes, Bk 3, Ch 19, Sec. 15

      Thus all have confessed that no polity can be successfully established unless piety be its first care, and that those laws are absurd which disregard the rights of God, and consult only for men. Seeing then that among philosophers religion holds the first place, and that the same thing has always been observed with the universal consent of nations, Christian princes and magistrates may be ashamed of their heartlessness if they make it not their care. We have already shown that this office is specially assigned them by God, and indeed it is right that they exert themselves in asserting and defending the honour of Him whose vicegerents they are, and by whose favour they rule. Hence in Scripture holy kings are especially praised for restoring the worship of God when corrupted or overthrown, or for taking care that religion flourished under them in purity and safety. Institutes, Bk 4, Ch 20, Sec. 9

    • 16th & 17th century confessions

      Former Confession of Helvetia (1536, Basel)

      Seeing that every magistrate is of God, his chief duty (except it please him to exercise a tyranny) consisteth in this; to defend and protect religion from all blasphemy, and, as the prophet teacheth out of the word of the Lord, to put it in practice, so much as in him lieth.

      Latter Confession of Helvetia (1566, Zürich)

      Therefore let him draw forth this sword of God against all malefactors, seditious persons, thieves or murderers, oppressors, blasphemers, perjured persons, and all those whom God hath commanded him to punish or even to execute. Let him suppress stubborn heretics (which are heretics indeed), who cease not to blaspheme the majesty of God, and to trouble the Church, yea, and finally to destroy it.
      …We condemn the Anabaptists, who, as they deny that a Christian man should bear the office of a magistrate, so also they deny that any man can justly be put to death by the magistrate, or that the magistrate may make war, or that oaths should be performed to the magistrate, and such like things. For as God will work the safety of his people by the magistrate, whom he hath given to be, as it were, a father of the world; so all subjects are commanded to acknowledge this benefit of God in the magistrate.

      The Confession of France (1559)

      We believe that God would have the world to be governed by laws, and by civil government, that there may be certain bridles, whereby the immoderate desires of the world may be restrained : and that therefore He appointed kingdoms, commonwealths, and other kinds of principalities, whether they come by inheritance, or otherwise ; and not that alone, but also whatsoever pertaineth to the state of righteousness, as they call it, whereof He desireth to be acknowledged the author. Therefore He hath also delivered the sword into the hands of magistrates; to wit, that offences may be repressed, not only those which are committed against the second table, but also against the first.

      Confession of Scotland (1560)

      Moreover, to kings, princes, rulers, and magistrates, we affirm that chiefly and most principally the conservation and purgation of the religion appertaineth ; to that not only they are appointed for civil policy, but also for maintenance of the true religion, and for suppressing of idolatry and superstition whatsoever.

      Confession of Belgia (1566)

      Therefore He hath armed the magistrates with the sword, that they may punish the wicked, and defend the good. Moreover it is their duty, not only to be careful to preserve the civil government, but also to endeavour that the ministry may be preserved, that all idolatry and counterfeit worship of God may be clean abolished, that the kingdom of Antichrist may be overthrown, and that the kingdom of Christ may be enlarged. To conclude, it is their duty to bring to pass, that the holy word of the Gospel may be preached everywhere, that all men may serve and worship God purely and freely, according to the prescript rule of His word.

      Confession of Saxony (1551, Melanchthon)

      First. God would that the magistrate without all doubt should sound forth the voice of the moral law among men touching discipline, according to the Ten Commandments, or the law natural; that is, he would first, by the voice of the magistrate, have sovereign and immutable laws to be propounded, forbidding the worship of idols, blasphemies, perjuries, unjust murders, wandering lusts, breach of wedlock, thefts and frauds in bargains, in contracts, and in judgments. …And well hath it been said of old, ‘ The magistrate is the keeper of the law;’ that is, of the First and Second Table, as concerning discipline and good order.

      Thirty-Nine Articles of 1562

      “The King’s majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other of his Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign jurisdiction … We give not to our Princes the ministering either of God’s Word, or of the Sacraments … but that only prerogative, which we see to have been given always to all Godly Princes in holy Scriptures by God himself; that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their change by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evildoer … The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England.”

    • “Blue” laws

      The Blue Laws of the Colony of Connecticut, as distinct from the generic term “blue law” that refers to any laws regulating activities on Sunday, were the initial statutes set up by the Gov. Theophilus Eaton with the assistance of the Rev. John Cotton (father-in-law of Increase Mather, grandfather of Cotton Mather) in 1655 for the Colony of New Haven, now part of Connecticut. After the laws were approved, they were printed in London, England, in 1656 and distributed to households in New Haven.

      A facsimile of the first page of these Blue Laws is shown in the accompanying image. These New Haven codes, though they were not of Connecticut per se, were almost entirely copied from the existing Code of 1650 that the Colony of Connecticut had already drafted, and subsequent historians and authors tend not to distinguish the difference.

      A “sketch” of the Blue Laws of Connecticut, according to the Rev. Samuel Peters, who often is criticized as puritanical extremist, are listed below. The author admits, though, that these “laws” were not actually put into draft, but their existence can be inferred through similar laws and statutes that New Haven and Connecticut amalgamated into their own codes or simply borrowed from codes that had already been adopted by adjacent colonies, such as the anti-papal or anti-Quaker codes of Virginia and New York.

      10. No one shall be a freeman, or give a vote, unless he be converted, and a member in full communion of one of the Churches allowed in this Dominion.

      11. No man shall hold any office, who is not sound in the faith, and faithful to this Dominion; and whoever gives a vote to such a person, shall pay a fine of £1; for a second offence, he shall be disfranchised.

      12. Each freeman shall swear by the blessed God to bear true allegiance to this Dominion, and that Jesus Christ is the only King.

      13. No quaker or dissenter from the established worship of this Dominion shall be allowed to give a vote for the election of Magistrates, or any officer.

      14. No food or lodging shall be afforded to a Quaker, Adamite, or other Heretic.

      15. If any person turns Quaker, he shall be banished, and not suffered to return but upon pain of death.

      16. No Priest shall abide in this Dominion: he shall be banished, and suffer death on his return. Priests may be seized by any one without a warrant.

      18. No one shall run on the Sabbath day, or walk in his garden or elsewhere, except reverently to and from meeting.

      19. No one shall travel, cook victuals, make beds, sweep house, cut hair, or shave, on the Sabbath day.

      20. No woman shall kiss her child on the Sabbath or fasting day.

      36. No gospel Minister shall join people in marriage; the magistrates only shall join in marriage, as they may do it with less scandal to Christ’s Church.

      43. No man shall court a maid in person, or by letter, without first obtaining consent of her parents: £5 penalty for the first offence; £10 for the second; and, for the third, imprisonment during the pleasure of the Court.

    • WCF 20:4

      WSC 20.4. And because the power which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another; they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity, whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation; or to the power of godliness; or such erroneous opinions or practices as, either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the Church; they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against by the censures of the Church, and by the power of the Civil Magistrate.

      The Assembly proceeded in the debate of the Report ‘of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience’ and upon debate of the arguments against the putting of this proposition into the Confession of Faith, it was

      Resolved upon the Q., That the arguments brought against the putting of the proposition last voted into the Confession of Faith are answered. Resolved upon the Q., That this proposition shall stand in the Confession of Faith : ‘ That for their publishing such opinions or maintaining such practices/ etc. (as before voted), ‘ may be lawfully called to account and proceeded against by the power of the Civil Magistrate.’ Mr Simpson [Sidrach Simpson of London], Mr. Burroughs [Jeremiah Burroughs of Stepney], Mr. Greenhill [William Greenhill of Stepney], entered their dissent. Mr. Carter [uncertain which of 3 men] entered his dissent to the truth of it. Minutes of the Westminster Assembly

  • Intersection of three strands
    • Civil authority
    • Ecclesiastical authority
    • Individual conscience
  • Congregational and Baptist response
  • American Presbyterian solution


A. Christian Liberty

  1. Common to believers in all ages
    1. freedom from
      1. the guilt of sin
      2. the condemning wrath of God
      3. the severity and curse of the [moral] law.
    2. deliverance from
      1. this present evil world
      2. bondage to Satan
      3. the dominion of sin
      4. the distress of afflictions
      5. the fear and sting of death
      6. the victory of the grave
      7. everlasting damnation.
    3. it includes
      1. free access to God
      2. ability to yield obedience to him
  2. Enjoyed to a greater degree by believers in this age
    1. freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law
    2. greater boldness of access to the throne of grace
    3. fuller provision of the free Spirit of God

B. Liberty of Conscience

  1. God alone is Lord of the human conscience
    1. God has authoritatively addressed the human conscience only in his law.
    2. To believe doctrines contrary to the Word of God, or to obey such commandments as a matter of conscience, is to be guilty of the sin of betraying the liberty of conscience.
    3. To require such an obedience of others is to be guilty of the sin of usurping the prerogative of God.
  2. Christian liberty has limits
    1. the authority of God
    2. the liberty of our fellow-men
  3. Christian obedience
    1. Church and state
      1. established by God
      2. legitimate authorities when acting properly within their rightful spheres
      3. obedience to authority is obedience to God


  1. Living in the church
    1. proper standard
      1. sola scriptura
    2. legitimate expectations
      1. of ourselves and others
    3. respecting the brethren
      1. accommodating their weaknesses
      2. not becoming enslaved to their preferences
  2. Living in the culture
    1. obedience to civil authority
      1. cheerfully
      2. willingly – not looking for loopholes
    2. in the face of disagreement
      1. when it’s a matter of preference and not conscience
      2. seeking God’s purpose behind present circumstances
    3. Christian witness
      1. You pay taxes?!?!
      2. Boy, you’re a slowpoke!
      3. It’s after dark; no one’ll notice.

To glorify God, we must be law-abiding citizens of the kingdom.


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