The Confession of Faith: A commentary on The Westminster Confession of Faith

by A. A. Hodge

A. A. Hodge

Chapter 20

Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience

SECTION: I. The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law;[1] and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin;[2] from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation;[3] as also, in their free access to God,[4] and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind.[5] All which were common also to believers under the law.[6] But, under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected;[7] and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace,[8] and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of.[9]

1. Titus 2:14; I Thess. 1:10; Gal. 3:13
2. Gal. 1:4; Col. 1:13; Acts 26:18; Rom. 6:14
3. Rom. 8:28; Psa. 119:71; II Cor. 4:15-18; I Cor. 15:54-57; Rom. 5:9; 8:1; I Thess. 1:10
4. Rom. 5:1-2
5. Rom. 8:14-15; Gal. 4:6; I John 4:18
6. Gal. 3:8-9, 14; Rom. 4:6-8; I Cor. 10:3-4; Heb. 11:1-40
7. Gal. 4:1-7; 5:1; Acts 15:10-11
8. Heb. 4:14-16; 10:19-22
9. John 7:38-39; Acts 2:17-18; II Cor. 3:8, 13, 17-18; Jer. 31:31-34

THE subject of this chapter is that liberty wherewith Christ makes his people free, which is very different from that freedom of the will which we discussed under chapter ix. We there saw that freedom of the will is an inalienable, constitutional faculty of the human soul, whereby it always exercises its volitions as upon the whole it pleases in any given case. This liberty of will is essential to free agency, and is possessed by all free agents, good or bad, or they could not be held accountable. Christian liberty, on the other hand, implies two things: -- (1.) Such an inward spiritual condition of soul that a man has full power through grace to desire and will as he ought to do in conformity to the law of God; and (2.) Such relations to God that the person is delivered from the constraining motives of fear, and brought under the ennobling impulses of love and hope; and such relations to Satan and evil men that he is delivered. from their coercive influences; and such providential circumstances that he has knowledge of his privileges and gracious aid in availing himself of them. This liberty involves the change of nature effected in regeneration and perfected in sanctification, and the change of relation involved in justification. It is a main element in the grace of adoption, and a privilege of all the children of God. Rom. viii. 14, 15. It was purchased for us by Christ, and is therefore attributed to him (Gal. v. 1); it is applied and effectually wrought in us by the Holy Ghost, and therefore attributed to him. 2 Cor. iii. 17.

This section sets forth this precious and most comprehensive Christian grace in two orders; -- first, as it is common to all believers at all times; and, second, as it is enjoyed pre-eminently in certain respects by believers under the new dispensation in contrast to believers under the old.

1. As this Christian liberty is common to all believers in all ages, it consists mainly in the following particulars: --
(1.) They are delivered from the guilt of sin and the curse of the moral law. This is done, as we saw under chapter xi., when the believer is justified, his guilt in strict rigour of justice cancelled, and all the demands of the law satisfied by crediting to his account the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. The guilt of his sin having thus been actually extinguished, and the demands of the law having been perfectly satisfied, they can no longer hold him in bondage. "It is God that JUSTIFIETH: Who is he that condemneth?" Rom. viii. 33, 34.

(2.) They are delivered also from the bondage of sin as an inherent principle of their nature. This deliverance is commenced in regeneration, and is carried on and perfected in sanctification, as we saw under chapters x. and xiii. A law still remains in their members warring against the law of their mind, and bringing them into captivity to the law of sin which is in their members (Rom. vii. 23); nevertheless the indwelling Holy Spirit works with them to will and to do of his good pleasure, and thus secures them, upon the whole, the victory. See chapter xvii.

(3.) They thus have peace with God. This includes the two precious benefits of God's reconciliation to us through the propitiation of our High Priest, and our reconciliation to him through the work of the Holy Ghost. Thus we are delivered from that fear which hath torment and gendereth to bondage, and have that filial, submissive, confiding love shed abroad in our hearts which casteth out all fear. 1 John iv. 18. The Holy Ghost himself is the earnest of our inheritance, and witnesseth with our spirits that we are the children of God. Rom. viii. 16. Thus having a High Priest over the house of God, we have great confidence in entering into the very holiest through the new and living way opened by Christ, where God makes the clearest revelations and fullest communications of his grace to his beloved.

(4.) They are delivered from the bondage of Satan and the dominating influence of this present evil world. The power of the "world." and the "devil" depends upon the "flesh," or the corrupt state of the man's own heart. Christ "was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin." Heb. iv. 15. The act of justification has consecrated the believer to God. The work of sanctification breaks the power of temptation, God in every case either graciously enabling us to resist and come off conquerors, or providentially opening a way of escape for us. 1 Cor. x. 13. Thus Satan, too, is subject to his power; he helps us to resist Satan and put him to flight, and the excess of his malignant power he prevents and restrains.

(5.) They are delivered from the evil of afflictions and the sting of death. The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law, but Christ has delivered them from the curse of the law, being made a curse for them. In justification the believer's relation to the law is permanently changed. It is no more the basis of his salvation. And death, and all the sorrows incident to this life, which are the consequences of sin, which to the reprobate are parts of the penalty of sin inflicted in pursuance of law, to the true believers are elements of God's chastening grace, designed for their improvement. Heb. xii. 6 -- 11. By the death of Christ believers are delivered from the fear of death. Heb. ii. 14, 15.

(6.) They are also delivered from the victory of the grave and everlasting damnation. The first effect of his redemption which the true believer sensibly experiences is the forgiveness of his sins. If his sins are forgiven, the penal consequences of them must be removed. "There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus." Rom. viii. 1. There can therefore be nothing to fear beyond death. Even our mortal bodies are members of Christ and temples of that Holy Ghost who will quicken them and transform them into the likeness of our glorious Redeemer. 1 Cor. vi. 15, 19; Rom. viii. 11; Phil. iii. 21.

2. In certain respects believers under the Gospel enjoy this Christian liberty in a higher degree than it was enjoyed by believers under the Old Testament: --
(1.) The New Testament believer is delivered from the obligation of the ceremonial law. This law was to the Old Testament believer the revelation of the gospel of the Son of God, and therefore an inestimable blessing; but it was comparatively so obscured with material symbols and ceremonies, and enforced obedience so largely by coercive measures, that the apostle called the whole system " the elements of the world," under which the Jews were " in bondage" (Gal. iv. 3); a " yoke of bondage " (Gal. v. 1), and " carnal ordinances imposed on them until the time of reformation." Heb. ix. 10. And in contrast therewith he exhorts the Christian Galatians to "stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free." Gal. v. 1. We enjoy the clear light shed from the person and work of our adorable Redeemer in person. We have the direct instead of the reflected ray -- immediate access to the Father instead of a constrained approach through the medium of priests and an outward sanctuary.

(2.) In connection with this, believers under the present dispensation have greater boldness in approaching God, and fuller communications of his Spirit. The greater boldness now enjoyed evidently results from the clearer and fuller revelation now enjoyed of the method and completeness of redemption and the greater fullness in the communications of the Holy Ghost. This divine person, as we know, inspired the Old Testament prophets and sanctified the Old Testament saints; nevertheless the new dispensation is pre-eminently characterized by the clearness with which the truth with respect to the office of the Holy Ghost is revealed and the fullness with which his influence is dispensed. Christ promised the gift of the Holy Ghost in this pre-eminent measure of it after his ascension. John xv. 26. Previously it was said, " The Holy Ghost was not yet given, because that Jesus was not yet glorified." John vii. 39. After his ascension, on the great day of Pentecost, Peter said that in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy (Isa. xliv. 3; Ezek. xxxvi. 27; Joel ii. 28, 29,) and the promise of Christ, " he being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear." Acts ii. 16, 17, 33.

SECTION: II. God alone is Lord of the conscience,[10] and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship.[11] So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience:[12] and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.[13]

10. James 4:12; Rom. 14:4, 10; I Cor. 10:29
11. Acts 4:19, 5:29; I Cor. 7:22-23; Matt. 15:1-6, 9; 23:8-10; II Cor. 1:24
12. Col. 2:20-23; Gal. 1:10; 2:4-5; 4:9-10; 5:1
13. Rom. 10:17; Isa. 8:20; Acts 17:11; John 4:22; Rev. 13:12, 16-17; Jer. 8:9; I Peter 3:15

SECTION: III. They who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, do practice any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian liberty, which is, that being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.[14]

14. Gal. 5:13; I Peter 2:16; II Peter 2:19; Rom. 6:15; John 8:34; Luke 1:74-75

SECTION: IV. And because the powers 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.[15] 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.[16]

15. I Peter 2:13-14, 16; Rom. 13:1-8; Heb. 13:17; I Thess. 5:12-13
16. Rom. 1:32; 16:17; I Cor. 5:1, 5, 11-13; II John 1:10-11; II Thess. 3:6, 14; I Tim. 1:19-20; 6:3-4; Titus 1:10-11, 13-14; 3:10; Matt. 18:15-17; Rev. 2:2, 14-15, 20

These sections teach the following propositions: --
1. God alone is Lord of the human, conscience, which is responsible only to his authority.

2. God has authoritatively addressed the human conscience only in his law, the only perfect revelation of which in this world is the inspired Scriptures. Hence God himself has set the human conscience free from all obligation to believe or obey any such doctrines or commandments of men as are either contrary to or aside from the teachings of that Word.

3. Hence to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments as a matter of conscience, is to be guilty of the sin of betraying the liberty of conscience and its loyalty to its only Lord; and to require such an obedience of others is to be guilty of the sin of usurping the prerogative of God and attempting to destroy the most precious liberties of men.

4. This Christian liberty is not, however, absolute. It has its distinct end and limits. Its end, is that every person, without hindrance of his fellow-men, should have opportunity to serve God according to his will. The limits of this liberty are of two kinds: (a.) The authority of God, the Lord of conscience.
(b.) The equal liberties and rights of our fellow-men, with whom we dwell in organized societies.

5. Since God has established both the Church and the State, obedience to the legitimate authorities of either, acting within their rightful sphere, is an essential part of obedience to God.

6. The Church has the right from God of exercising its discipline upon any who maintain or practice opinions or actions plainly contrary to the light of nature, the doctrines of the Scripture, or the peace and welfare of the Christian community.

1. That, in the highest and only absolute sense, God alone is Lord of the human conscience, has never been denied. The real question raised by Romanists, and those in general who have claimed the authority of binding and loosing the consciences of their fellow-men, relates to the standard which God has given us of his will, and the means he has chosen to enforce it. The Romanists maintain that the true standard and organ of the will of God in the world is the infallible inspired Church, or body of bishops ordained regularly in a direct line from the apostles, and in communion with the See of Rome. They hold that this Church has power to define doctrines and enact laws in God's name, binding the consciences of men; and that it possesses, in the power of the keys, the right, in execution of these laws, to absolve or condemn in God's name, to bind or loose the subject, and open or shut the kingdom of heaven, and to impose ecclesiastical penalties. By far the larger part of what the Church of Rome actually enforces, in the way of faith and practice, is derived from ecclesiastical tradition and, evidently perverted interpretations of Scripture.

The Erastian State Churches of Germany and England have often attempted to enforce outward uniformity in profession and worship, in spite of the conscientious scruples of multitudes of their best citizens, on the plea that the right and responsibility of regulating the ecclesiastical as well as the civil interests of the nation devolve upon the civil magistrate.

In opposition to all this, Protestants insist --
2. That God has given only one, and that a perfect, rule of faith and practice in spiritual matters in the inspired Scriptures, and that he has hence set free the human conscience from all obligation to believe or obey any such doctrines or commandments of men as are contrary to or aside from the teachings of that Word.

We have already proved, under chapter i. sections 6, 7, 9, 10, that Scripture is at once a complete and perspicuous rule of faith and practice, and the supreme judge of all controversies. It hence follows self-evidently -- (1.) That nothing contrary to Scripture can be true; (2.) That nothing in addition to what is revealed or commanded in Scripture can be binding upon the conscience; and (3.) That, since the Scriptures are perspicuous, every believer is personally responsible for interpreting Scripture and judging of all human doctrines and commandments by Scripture for himself. This is further proved --

(a.) Because the Scriptures are addressed immediately either to all men promiscuously, or else to the whole body of believers as such. Dent. vi. 4 -- 9; Luke i. 3; Rom. i. 7; 1 Cor. i. 2; Gal. i. 2, etc.

(b.) All Christians promiscuously are commanded to search the Scriptures (John v. 39; Acts xvii. 11; 2 Tim. iii. 15 -- 17), and to give a reason for their faith (1 Pet. iii. 15), and to resist the authority even of legitimate church rulers when it is opposed to that of the Lord of conscience. Acts iv. 19, 20.

(c.) The "Church" which Christ promises to guide into all truth and to preserve from fatal error is not a hierarchy or a body of officers, but the body of the " called " or " elect "-- the body of believers as such. 1 John ii. 20, 27; 1 Tim. iii. 15; Matt. xvi. 18; Eph. v. 27; 1 Pet. ii. 5; Col. i. 18, 24.

(d.) Those who claim, as the successors of the apostles, to exercise this Authority, are utterly destitute of all the " signs of an apostle." 2 Cor. xii. 12; 1 Cor. ix. 1; Gal. i. 1, 12; Acts i. 21, 22. While provision was made for the regular perpetuation of the offices of deacon and presbyter (1 Tim. iii. 1 -- 13), there was no direction given for the perpetuation of the apostolate. They are utterly without credentials.

The question as to the right of the civil magistrate to impose religious articles of faith or rules of worship will recur again under chapter xxiii., section 3. It hence follows --

3. That it is a great sin, involving at the same time sacrilege, and treason to the human race, for any man or set of men to arrogate the prerogative of God and to attempt to bind the consciences of their fellow-men by any obligation not certainly imposed by God and revealed in his Word. At the same time it is a sin of disloyalty to God, and a violation of our own nature as moral and rational beings, to yield to any such imposition, and to accept as a matter truly binding the conscience anything not authoritatively taught and imposed in the Scriptures.

4. It is of the highest importance, on the other hand, clearly to understand that Christian liberty is not an absolute liberty to do as we choose, but a regulated liberty to obey God without hindrance from man. It is a freedom from usurped authority, in order that we may be the more perfectly subject to the only legitimate authority. It is hence absurd, as well as wicked, for a man to make his Christian liberty to obey only God a plea to disobey God, as he does whenever he violates any of the principles of natural right or of revealed truth which express at once the unchangeable nature and the all-perfect will of God. There can be no liberty which sets a man independent of that will; and this is always the will of God concerning us, even our sanctification. 1 Thess. iv. 3.

Christian liberty is also further limited by the mutual duties we owe one another. The eating of meat offered to idols is in itself a thing indifferent, because not either commanded or forbidden. The Christian, therefore, is at liberty either to eat or not to eat. But Paul commands the Corinthians to "take heed lest by any means this liberty of theirs become a stumbling block to them that are weak." 1 Cor. viii. 9. To allow this would be a sin. The Christian, therefore, may be at liberty to eat or not to eat, but he is not at all at liberty so to use his liberty that his fellow-man is injured thereby. The liberty ceases to be liberty, and becomes licentiousness, when it transcends the law of God or infringes upon the rights of our fellows.

5. and 6. Since both the Church and the State are divine institutions, it follows necessarily that the authority of the officers of each, when acting legitimately within their respective spheres, represents the authority of God and binds the Christian to obedience for conscience' sake. It follows also that both the civil magistrate and the ecclesiastical courts must have the right of enforcing obedience by a mode of discipline appropriate to both spheres of authority. These matters, however, come up appropriately under chapters xxiii., xxv., and xxx.


Scanned and edited by Michael Bremmer

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