Stu Johnston

Chapter 21: Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience


The concern of chapter 21 of The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith is to explain “the liberty which Christ has purchased for believers”. The fundamental goal of redemption is to emancipate those held in captivity. This chapter describes the liberation that Jesus Christ has accomplished for His people.

Historical Background

The Second London Confession of Faith was adopted late in the 17th Century (1689). Western European (British) pastors penned this statement of faith that is still held in high esteem today. It is helpful to be mindful of these historical factors in seeking to understand the content of Chapter 21. In Western Europe, at the end of the 1600’s, there were many that believed that the church was the supreme human authority. The Roman Catholic Church, in particular, claimed the right to bind the consciences of Christians. Catholic leaders required conformity to religious beliefs and practices that were not rooted in the Scriptures but rather in their own ecclesiastical traditions.

Likewise, at the end of the 1600’s, the idea that the state was the supreme human authority exerted a significant amount of influence. In the preceding century, King Henry VIII had appointed himself the head of The Church of England. There were people that believed that the state has the right to enforce certain religious beliefs.

Chapter 21 of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith asserts that the Bible teaches that neither the church nor the state has supreme authority over the believer. The Christian’s conscience is bound by Scripture alone. “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” This conviction was one of the most fundamental assertions of the Protestant Reformation (“Sola Scriptura” i.e. the Bible alone) and has ever since been a hallmark of Reformed theology.

The rejection of the ideas that church or state has final authority does not mean, however, that people are free to do as they please. Christian liberty is the freedom to think and act as we should think and act. The writers of the Confession understood that there was a real danger of people overreacting against the abuse of authority by turning “liberty” into license. Liberty can be abused as easily as authority.

It is interesting that the Confession makes no mention of the fact that the Christian’s liberty is limited by his obligations to his fellow believers. Entire chapters in the New Testament, such as Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, address this matter. Perhaps the historical setting in which the Confession was written sheds light on the passing over of this point, but it is a significant omission and should be remembered as we strive to accurately understand what the Bible itself teaches on the subject of Christian liberty.

Outline of Chapter 21

Chapter 21 has three sub-sections. Sub-section 1 answers the basic question, “What is Christian liberty”? It consists of two paragraphs. The first paragraph emphasizes what the Christian has been set free from, but also notes that the believer has been liberated unto certain privileges. The second affirms that while believers in every period of redemptive history have been emancipated by the work of Christ, New Covenant believers experience a larger measure of spiritual freedom than that enjoyed by Old Covenant believers.

Sub-sections 2 and 3 help us to understand the true character of Christian Liberty by warning us against common abuses of spiritual freedom. Sub-section 2 asserts that, “God alone is Lord of the conscience”. It warns against the danger of requiring compliance with or yielding compliance to man-made rules as if those rules were the commandments of the living God. Sub-section 3 warns against the deadly danger of the erroneous thinking that “Christian Liberty” gives one the license to “practice any sin, or cherish any sinful lust”.

Sub-section 1: What is Christian Liberty?

Chapter 21 commences with the affirmation that Christ “has purchased” liberty for believers. Christian liberty is a precious gift that Jesus secured for His people through the ransom payment of His shed blood. All that believe in Christ receive spiritual emancipation freely, but it is a costly gift. “You were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold…but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ” (1Pe 1:18-19). The 1689 Confession emphasizes what the believer has been set free from.

1. What the Believer Has Been Liberated From

Chapter 21, paragraph one, lists 10 realities that Christians have been emancipated from. It has been suggested that the first three items each have to do with the guilt of sin, the next three items all relate to the power of sin, and the final four items all have to do with the punishment of sin. These ten items will be taken up one at a time. “The liberty which Christ has purchased for believers under the gospel, consists in their freedom from:”

1) “The guilt of sin”

Guilt is “the act or state of having done a wrong or committed an offense”. The Bible declares that by nature, by choice, and by action, we are all guilty. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Christ has liberated the believer from guilt. It is not that the Christian no longer does wrong, but that God no longer regards believers as having done wrong. Their guilt was transferred to Christ, the sacrificial Lamb of God. His perfect righteousness has been transferred to the believer. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2Co 5:21). The Christian is no longer viewed as guilty in God’s sight.

2) “The condemning wrath of God”

Condemnation and wrath are the response of a holy and righteous God to those that are guilty. To condemn is a legal action, in which the judge declares the accused to be guilty and thus liable to punishment. As guilty sinners, we were under God’s just condemnation. In Christ, however, believers have been set free from condemnation, because the Savior bore the guilt and the punishment in His people’s stead. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).

Wrath is an emotion. God, like any personal being, has feelings. Apart from Christ, man’s transgressions of God’s will offend Him and provoke feelings of intense anger. Jesus Christ, through bearing the sins and judgment of His people, has delivered them from the wrath of God. “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36).

3) “The rigor and curse of the law”

“The law”, as used here, refers to a principle or doctrine in which the leading idea is that man must obey God perfectly in order to have eternal life. Man must perfectly fulfill all that God commands, i.e. man must be perfect in doing all that God requires and perfect in not doing anything that God forbids or else he will be condemned. Law thus understood, as a principle of salvation, is rigorous and inevitably brings God’s curse rather than blessing.

Rigor means “harshness or severity”. The idea is of “strictness or inflexibility”. As fallen sinners, we are too corrupt and too weak, and too susceptible to the devil’s temptations, to even approach perfect obedience to the Law of God. If perfect personal obedience were the only way to heaven, no one would go to heaven. That kind of strictness would close the door to everyone. “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them” (Gal 3:10). The idea that sinners can only please God if they are personally perfect is harsh and severe. It is utterly impossible for one with a sinful nature to be morally perfect.

In Christ, the believer has been liberated from “the rigor and curse of the law”. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’” (Gal 3:13). Jesus Christ bore the curse that believers deserved. He perfectly obeyed the commands of God. Through His mediation, God is pleased with, and even graciously rewards, the genuine albeit imperfect efforts of His children to obey and serve Him.

4) “This present evil world”

“(The Lord Jesus Christ) gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us out of this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal 1:4). The world in which Christians live is dominated by thoughts, desires, words, and deeds that defy the holy will of God. Through Christ, believers are no longer controlled by these ungodly environmental influences. Having given Himself for His people, He now is preparing a place for His brethren in another world, a holy world. Through the doorway of death, Jesus takes His people out of this evil world and brings them to heaven. When He returns in glory, He will destroy “this present evil world” and create new heavens and new earth.

5) “Bondage to Satan”

Before being born from above (John 3:3), we “were dead in our trespasses and sins…and walked according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience” (Eph 2:1-2). In our native fallen condition, we were “of (our) father the devil and want(ed) to do the desires of (our) father” (John 8:44). We lived under the controlling influence of Satan’s power. Through the work of Christ, however, believers have had “their eyes open(ed) so that they turn(ed) from darkness to light, and from the dominion of Satan to God” (Acts 24:18). Christians have been emancipated from living in bondage to our great Adversary.

6) “Dominion of sin”

Romans 6:14 For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace. 15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not! 16 Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? 17 But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. 18 And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.

The believer formerly lived under the controlling influence of a principle of rebellion against God. He did not want to please and glorify God. He was unable to do so. Christ, however, has brought liberty. Through His redemption, the Christian has been set free to desire and actually engage in a life of obedience and service to God. Having been released from the tyranny of sin, God’s people are willingly the “slaves of righteousness”, i.e. they gladly own Jesus Christ as their rightful Master.

7) “The evil of afflictions”

God’s children are certainly not delivered (in the sense of being spared) from any and every affliction in this world. Christians suffer many trials. They are, however, delivered “from THE EVIL of afflictions”. Fallen man suffers in this world, because of our race having rebelled against God. The painful reality of afflictions is a manifestation of the fact that God has punished our world. For the non-Christian, afflictions, while ordained by a just God, are “evil” in that they are inescapably tied to God’s determination to punish our evil rebellion. Apart from repentance, those afflictions are a foretaste of the much greater suffering that awaits unbelievers in hell.

The Christian, on the other hand, has been delivered from punishment through Christ. While the believer still suffers in this world, his afflictions are now the manifestations of His heavenly Father’s commitment to the loving process of disciplining His children so that they will become holy even as He is holy (Heb 12:4-13). The child of God suffers afflictions with the conviction that his heavenly Father “causes ALL THINGS to work together for good for those that love God and are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28).

8) “The fear and sting of death”

9) “The victory of the grave”

Hebrews 2:14 Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.

1 Corinthians 15:54 So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” 55 “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?” 56 The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Christians, like unbelievers, still face the prospect of death and the grave. Through Christ, however, believers have been “released” from the fear of death. For the follower of Jesus, death is now the doorway to glory. Death is the opening, through which the believer comes into the immediate presence of the glorified Christ. The New Testament refers to those that have died in the Lord as “those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (1Th 4:14). Jesus will “awaken” them and bring them with Him when He returns in glory.

Christ has conquered sin and all of sin’s consequences, the first and most fundamental of which was death (separation). The Redeemer bore the punishment that our sins deserved. He perfectly fulfilled the demands of the Law and fully bore the punishment that the Law demanded. He bore the agonies of full separation from the Father, so that His brethren would never have to face such a situation. The Savior Himself died, as our Substitute, but then triumphantly rose from the dead. Through His victory, the Christian is set free from the power of Satan (who intimidates people with the threat of death). Christ fully removed the sting of death. He liberated His people from condemnation and ultimate separation from the goodness of the Lord.

10) “Everlasting damnation”

Having been freed from “the guilt of sin, (and) the condemning wrath of God”, the Christian has also been liberated from the ultimate expression of divine wrath, which is everlasting damnation. Unlike those that “will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when (Christ) comes to be glorified in His saints on that day” (2Th 1:9-10), the believer will rejoice in the coming of his Savior and enter into everlasting rest.

2. What the Believer Has Been Liberated To

“The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel, consists…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.”

Romans 8:15 For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.”

Luke 1:74 To grant us that we, Being delivered from the hand of our enemies, Might serve Him without fear, 75 In holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life.

Christian liberty, in essence, is having the inner freedom to love, enjoy, and want to please God. There is no element of coercion. God does not force us to act contrary to our will. Men do not force us to act contrary to our will. The Redeemer liberates the affections and wills of His brethren, whereby they desire to commune with Him and yield obedience to Him. The genuine desire for fellowship with God is satisfied in having “free access to God”. Christ has torn down the veil whereby all those that believe in Him can FREELY and boldly enter into the immediate and holy presence of their heavenly Father.

3. Christian Liberty in the New Covenant is Greater in Degree than that Experienced Under the Law

The Confession begins the second paragraph of chapter 21 by affirming that Old Covenant believers received the same purchased liberties that Christ bought for New Covenant believers. Old Testament saints, like New Testament ones, were freed from guilt, wrath, bondage, and punishment. It is the truth that sets free (John 8:32). Throughout redemptive history, whenever sinners have been graciously enabled to embrace saving truth, they have experienced emancipation.

While “believers under the law”, however, received the same purchased liberties as did New Testament Christians, the latter have been given a greater degree of liberty. The Confession explains this further enlargement of liberty by way of the following three contrasts:

1) New Testament believers have been freed “from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected”.
While the ceremonial law, like the civil law and the moral law, was a good gift from God to Old Covenant believers, it had a restrictive and coercive tone that limited the liberty of God’s people. The New Testament reflects back upon the Old Covenant as a period in which God’s heirs were like children still under the care of a guardian. They were so restricted in their privileges as to be no different, in experience, from a slave (Gal. 4:1-5). Just as small children live under rules (for example, a mandatory early bed-time) that would be restrictive for adults, so the Israelites had rules imposed upon them that limited their freedom. Hebrews 9:10 speaks of “foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation”.

The book of Galatians uses even stronger language in contrasting the New Covenant era with the Old. “We, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world” (4:3). “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (5:1). The 1689 Confession uses biblical language when it refers to “the yoke of the ceremonial law”.

The ceremonial law was a yoke in that it imposed a multitude of detailed requirements upon the Hebrews. More than that, the relative emphasis upon the law in the Old Covenant, tended to focus attention upon what man must do, which fed the fallen inclination to think of our standing with God in the light of our own performance. It is indeed a yoke, a heavy one, to think that what one does (or fails to do) is the decisive factor in how one relates to God.

The coming of Christ, and the corresponding emphasis upon grace in the New Testament (note John 1:17, “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”), enlarges the liberty of believers by helping them to focus, not upon what man must do, but upon what Christ has done. The detailed requirements of the ceremonial law have been abrogated through the coming of Christ. More than that, however, the coming of Christ has brought a new and deeper emphasis upon grace, helping the New Testament Christian to “not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1).

2) New Testament Christians have “greater boldness of access to the throne of grace”.

Hebrews 10:19 Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, 21 and having a High Priest over the house of God,

In the Old Testament period, believers were prohibited from entering into the holy of holies. On one day each year, the Day of Atonement, the high priest, a fellow sinner, entered into the holy of holies as the representative of the people, in order to make atonement (symbolically) for the sins of the nation. A curtain was a constant and tangible reminder that sinners were not allowed access into the immediate special presence of God.

Jesus, through His cross work, tore down that curtain, opening the way for any and every New Testament believer to come directly into the special presence of a holy God. Christ Himself is our mediator, thus we no longer need an earthly priest, a fellow sinner, to represent us before God. In the Old Testament, the overall emphasis, in connection with God’s awesome holiness, was that people should keep their distance from the holy place where God dwells. In the New Testament, the overall emphasis, in connection with God’s awesome grace in Christ, is that believers should “come boldly to the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16).

3) New Testament Christians have “fuller communications of the free Spirit of God than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of”.

While the ministry of the Holy Spirit is multi-faceted, His primary work is to “testify of (Christ)” (John 15:26). Jesus said of the Spirit, “He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14-15). Given that the primary mission of the Spirit is to glorify and make known Christ, it makes sense that “fuller communications of the free Spirit of God” awaited the coming of Christ. Once Christ had lived, died, risen, and ascended, the Spirit of God was poured out upon the people of God that He might testify to the Son of God. The contrast between Old and New was such that John spoke of the experience of believers prior to Pentecost in the following words: “But this (Jesus) spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:39).

John is not saying that Old Testament believers did not experience the Holy Spirit’s ministry. It is the truth that sets free (John 8:32). Old Testament Christians, like New Testament saints, were emancipated through the knowledge of the truth, and the Spirit alone enables sinners to understand truth in a saving way. In some instances, individual Old Covenant saints may have experienced larger measures of the Spirit’s presence than some individual New Covenant Christians (note the careful way in which the 2nd paragraph of chapter 21 closes). Generally speaking, however, the much larger disclosure of truth that came in the New Testament age required a much larger ministry of the Holy Spirit whose work is to explain and apply the truth. Larger measures of light, and larger measures of the Spirit’s presence, enable New Covenant believers to experience larger measures of liberty.

APPLICATION: While gospel ministers are called to declare “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), there should be a distinctly New Covenant tone to their ministry, both in public and in private. The New Testament church is no longer under the yoke that once restricted the saints. Believers now have free and bold access unto God through Christ. The Holy Spirit is the prized possession of the New Covenant community. The wonder and nature of God’s grace, the glorious and manifold liberty that Christ has purchased, and the corresponding call to draw near to God with confidence and assurance, should be dominant features in all of Christ’s churches.

TRANSITION: Having explained the nature of the liberty that Christ has purchased for believers, chapter 21 continues by sounding warnings against two common abuses of spiritual freedom. It cautions first against the danger of requiring compliance with or yielding compliance to man-made rules as if those rules were the commandments of the living God. Finally, it warns against turning liberty into license.

Sub-section 2: Liberty of Conscience

This sub-section, which consists of the third paragraph of chapter 21, begins with the key statement, “God alone is Lord of the conscience”. James, in the context of admonishing Christians against speaking evil of brethren and judging them, says: “There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another” (Jam. 4:12)? God alone, as our Maker, our Ruler, and our Judge, has absolute authority, i.e. the ultimate right, to tell us what we should and should not do and what we should and should not believe. In the final analysis, the Lord is the only person to whom we are accountable. His law, His verdict upon our beliefs and conduct, and His subsequent vindication or condemnation is decisive in the destiny of each and every person. “God alone is Lord of the conscience.”

In this sub-section, the Confession is not denying that people have a conscientious obligation to obey those that God has placed in authority over them. One of the Ten Commandments, the 5th, requires us to honor and obey all those that God has placed over us (parents, husbands, governing authorities, pastors, etc.). The point, rather, is that we should never respond to “the doctrines and commandments of men” as if they were divine doctrines and commandments. Believers should “render to Caesar (the ruler) the things that are Caesar’s” (Matt. 22:21), for example the payment of taxes, but Christians should never regard Caesar (governing authorities) as if he was God. And certainly, if governing authorities require Christians to do things contrary to God’s Word, such as abandon the public worship of Christ, then such commands must be conscientiously disobeyed.

Some Protestant pastors have abused their God-given authority, much like the Catholic hierarchy has done for centuries, by “the requiring of an implicit faith, and absolute and blind obedience”. It has been pointed out that “implicit faith” is “requiring someone to believe what we teach is the Word of God without proof from the Word”. Likewise, “absolute and blind obedience” has been described as “ requiring someone to obey our commands as if they were the commands of God himself (absolutely), and without scriptural proof that they are (blindly)” (Sam Waldron, Exposition of the 1689 Confession, p261).

To require such faith and obedience, as a leader, or to yield it, as a follower, is “to betray true liberty of conscience”. Many Christians, including pastors, have strong opinions about various matters that the Bible does not explicitly address. Birth control, the feeding of infants (on demand or on a fixed schedule?), the raising of children, the education of children, dating or courtship, and the type of music that should be used in worship are just a few of the issues about which many believers have very strong ideas and even convictions. It is not uncommon for Christians to be very inclined to voice their opinions to others. It is crucial that we distinguish between what God Himself has authoritatively stated in Scripture and a fallible sinner’s opinion. When the two are confused, the devil can cause great injury, including the division and even the destruction of churches. We must maintain a very clear and emphatic distinction between, “Thus says the Lord…!” and, “In my opinion, I think that…”. Christ has purchased for each and every one of His people the liberty to live unto God with the conviction that He “alone is Lord of the conscience”.

Sub-section 3: The Danger of Turning Liberty into License

Believers have been emancipated from bondage to sin, Satan, and this present world so that they can serve Christ in righteousness. Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, prophesied that the Redeemer was coming “to grant us that we…might serve (God) without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life” (Luke 1:74-75). Christian liberty is not an end in itself. It is a precious gift, purchased with blood, through which believers are able to live unto God in godliness. As one has written, “Liberty is not the right to do as I please. Liberty is the right to do as God pleases without fear” (S. Waldron, p263).

To claim that Christian liberty gives one the right to “practice any sin or cherish any sinful lust” is not only wicked, but also it totally goes against the sole end for which Christ purchased liberty. Christ has set His people free to deliver them from sin, not to provide an excuse or occasion for sin. There are manifold implications to this point. In the affluent nations of the Western world, believers have access to money and a vast array of things designed to entertain and gratify. While many of these pleasures are not inherently sinful, and thus could not be lawfully prohibited in an absolute sense, they present liabilities. Things that are lawful may not be profitable. Christians can easily become guilty of overindulgence. Christians can expose themselves to experiences that deeply injure the soul.

The Confession of Faith, in its closing paragraph in chapter 21, is describing that kind of abuse of liberty that “perverts the main design of the grace of the gospel to (the) destruction (of souls)”. More than a few that have professed Christ have indeed been led astray, by the illegitimate use of “liberty”, unto the ruin of their souls. Many others that profess Christ, however, chronically weaken their souls by an unwise use of their liberty. Likewise, they injure other believers who are influenced by their poor example. May the Lord grant large measures of grace to His people throughout the earth, that the liberty purchased by Christ might manifest itself in a growing passion for holiness!

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