Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience

Chapter XXI | Second London Confession of Faith

This chapter is divided into three paragraphs, omitting in a significant way the fourth paragraph in the corresponding chapter from the Westminster Confession. It discusses the freedom wherewith Christ has set us free. How the elements of the law’s curse have been destroyed and the ceremonial law fulfilled, how merely human rules and religious exercises are denied, and how the deceitful presence of the flesh is uncovered and increasingly diminished are given attention in this chapter. The first numbered paragraph has two sections.

Paragraph 1a:

In its fallen and unredeemed state, mankind suffers under the tyranny of sin, guilt, wrath, death, Satan, unprofitable affliction, terrors of conscience, the servile fear of God, the grave, and the certainty of hell. This chapter opens with a paragraph describing the manifold blessings of freedom granted to believers by the redeeming death of Christ. All of these areas of moral and spiritual bondage fell on the human race in Adam’s disobedience to the single positive command given him by his Creator. He ate, he died, and we all died with him. His corruption of heart and bondage to death became ours; our many transgressions have multiplied the severity of this bondage and the awaiting wrath. All of the elements of bondage and corruption flowing from such sin were shouldered by Christ in his substitutionary death shattering the shackles of those redeemed by his atonement. The paragraph reads:

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 rigour and curse of the law, and in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin, from the evil of afflictions, the fear and sting of death, the victory of the grave, and ever- lasting damnation: 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.

Because “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13), the guilt and condemnation that constituted the curse have been taken away and believers are free from them. In giving himself for our sins, Jesus delivered us “from this present evil age” as well as “from the power of Satan” and the oppressive dominion of sin (Galatians 1:4, Acts 26:18 and Romans 8:3). Afflictions now do not have punitive intent but are designed to wean us from destructive forces and make us like Christ (Romans 8:28). The gloomy enervating fears prompted by the reality of death and the certainty of following judgment now are transformed into an anticipatory joy, for in death we are ushered into the presence of our savior: “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word tan the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:22-24). Through Christ’s death and resurrection, we have exchanged our perishing state for that which is imperishable, that which is corrupt for that which is incorruptible, and the defeat and sting of death for a fully triumphant assurance in Christ for fear has been ripped from the jaws of the grave. Life that is life indeed waits on the other side, not the punishment of eternal destruction. “Death is swallowed up in victory,” and the appearing of Jesus will not strike fear into us but a true sense of the marvelous glory of the Savior (1 Corinthians 15:54-57; 2 Thessalonians 1:9, 10). Obedience from servile fear no longer dominates the conscience but willing service to a loving Father and a self-giving kinsman-redeemer. These freedoms make all other attempts at defining freedom mere trifles. Later in this chapter of the confession, the freedom so frequently claimed of license to sin is addressed.

Paragraph 1b

The confession recognizes that all the aspects of salvation that are morally essential are present with believers under the Old Covenant. Covenantally conceived, the work of Christ must have been applied or there could be no forgiveness, no removal of iniquities. There must also have been a true operation of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, indwelling, and sanctification or no conversion, perseverance, and hungering for righteousness could be present. The Psalmist could never say, “My soul is consumed with longing for your rules at all times” (Psalm 119:20). The writer of Hebrews could never observe about Moses, “He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. . . . he endured as seeing him who is invisible” (Hebrews 11:26, 27). Believers in Christ are “blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Galatians 3:9, 14). We have joined Abraham with a faith, not superior to Abraham’s, but of the same quality, placed in the same object for forgiveness and righteousness.

This work of the Spirit, though qualitatively the same, would be expanded under the New covenant with great effusions of the Spirit, a more distinct marking of the regenerate from the unregenerate, a greater revelation of truth as the foundation of faith and holiness. Not only, however, are believers under the new covenant through the perfect work of Christ freed from guilt and all those consequences of it, and given more profuse operations of the Spirit, but they are freed from the requirements of the ceremonial law. Those types that looked forward to Christ have been eliminated because filled full by him; those ceremonies that marked off Israel as a peculiarly covenanted people are eliminated or put within the context of the spiritual discipline of a new covenant congregation (2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1). The confession states the truth thus:

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.

The multiplicity of sacrifices that dominated the days, weeks, months, and years of the Israelite nation were eliminated at the cross. There Christ performed all the sacrifices in the giving of himself once-for-all so that none of the sacrifices need ever be transacted again (Hebrews 9:23-26). Now circumcision does not serve as the covenantal mark of the redeemed community but the vital operations of the Spirt of God: “For we are the circumcision who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3: 3). Though the Spirit under the law gave converting and sustaining gifts to people of faith “for the substance of them,” these gifts were expanded both in quantity and number under the new covenant, for he is “poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:6; 1 Corinthians 12:1-7; 1 Peter 4:10, 11).

Paragraph 2

Resisting the tendency of carnally-minded religious zealots to invent their own ways of expressing superior devotion by devising an external standard (Matthew 23:4-6), the confession celebrated the freedom of the human conscience from human religious standards.

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.

If Christ’s work has freed believers from the observance of ceremonial law, regulations given by God himself until the time of their fulfillment, it is highly preposterous for any human authority to invent new ceremonies to place on the conscience of the people. The Judaizers sought to re-enforce the ceremonial law on the Gentiles and Paul rejected their attempt in the most vigorous language – “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received let him be accursed . . . Look, I, Paul say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you” (Galatians 1:9; 5:2).

Yet in principle such ceremonial imposition had occurred in Roman Catholicism. Ulrich Zwingli wrote, when considering the numbers of inventions imposed on the people by the church unwarranted by Scripture, “In the gospel one learns that human doctrines and decrees do not aid in salvation.” In the Geneva Confession of Faith, Calvin wrote, “All laws and regulations made binding on conscience which obliged the faithful to things not commanded by God, or which establish another service of God than which he demands, thus intending to destroy Christian liberty, we condemn as perverse doctrines of Satan.” The confession pointed out that Jesus had declared that he is “honored in vain by doctrines that are the commandments of men.”

James aimed at the universal tendency to absolutize personal convictions that are not necessarily true expressions of the law when he says, “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor” (James 4:11, 12).To make a rule for sanctification of something that is merely a personal conviction, perhaps a matter of conscience for us, but is not clearly deduced from the law of God is to judge the law. In such a judgment of our brother’s religious sincerity by our personal standard, we imply that the law made a mistake in not requiring something that it should have required.

In the same avenue of thought, Paul told the Colossian church not to submit to religious regulations devised by false standards of judgment. Some at Colossae sought to impose a fastidious ascetic principle as a supposed element of being truly spiritual which was not in fact any part of God’s law or a principle of gospel holiness (Colossians 2:16-23). The “Sabbath” mentioned in that passage were special Sabbaths associated with the various ceremonial observances (Leviticus 16:29-31; Hosea 2:11), not the Sabbath of the moral law as discussed later in this Journal.

Paragraph 3

The age of the Reformation had given rise to freedoms hitherto unexperienced. Liberation from bondage to oppressive religious regulations gave a fresh wave of true gospel liberty and joy. By way of over-reaction to such humanly-generated restrictions and harsh requirements (fasting, celibacy for priests, personal flagellations for sin, unmanageable physical requirement for penance), a spirit of enthusiasm and antinomianism became a prominent phenomenon in some groups. A supposed personal guidance by the Holy Spirit disconnected from scriptural authority (enthusiasm) and libertarian moral code void of externally mandated laws (antinomianism) became an expression of “Christian” freedom for some.

This error must be corrected with clarity of theological argument and biblical authority. The true nature of Christian freedom in accord with the true redemptive purpose of the gospel must be stated without equivocation. Pursuit of ephemeral pleasure and personal fulfillment void of gospel righteousness and purity is like preferring gravel to tenderloin and oak mulch to perfectly ripe tomatoes–except infinitely more stupid and perverse. The Confession stated the issue succinctly:

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 scripture reference to Romans 6: 1, 2 naturally supports the point, since it arises from the same erroneous reasoning in the time of Paul. Paul had argued, in light of human sinfulness and the glorious sufficiency of Christ’s righteousness, that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” He went on to explain, “As sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:20, 21). In light of such abundance of grace in the overcoming of sin, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” Paul answered, “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” Paul reminded the readers that grace reigned through righteousness; not only from the condemnation of sin does his righteousness deliver us, but from its destructive domination. Even our baptism is a picture of the “newness of life” that is ours in the death burial and resurrection of Jesus. Had we not come to love righteousness and hate transgression, we should never have desired such a Savior as Christ or even consented that by his death he removed a condemnation that we merited. Those, therefore, who “pervert the main design of the grace of the gospel” do so to their own destruction; their supposed trust in Christ is an application for sinning without consequences, not a statement of “grief and hatred of their sins” (Baptist Catechism, “On Repentance Unto Life”). By such an evil confusion of the nature of grace operating through righteousness, they completely miss the point of “the end of Christian Liberty.” Having been delivered from the curse of sin consisting of the wrath of God, from the requirement of the Law that by personal and perfect obedience we may attain to eternal life, and from the tyrannical reign of Satan  in his accusations against us as subject to death, we may know and serve God “without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our lives.” That is liberty indeed! Freed from condemnation, freed from the continuing test of personal righteousness for justification, recognizing that our holiness and righteousness are as yet incomplete but ever-increasing, we serve God in love and for the worthiness of such a Master as he is.

The Ghost of Paragraph 4

The Second London Confession closed this chapter at this point, omitting a lengthy paragraph contained in the Westminster Confession. That chapter affirmed the right of “any lawful power . . . whether it be civil or ecclesiastical” to bring punitive measures against any that would publish opinions or maintain practices contrary the light of nature or the “known principles of Christianity.” They believed that Christ had established that principle and granted that power to the church with the result that all who were in violation of these church standards could be “proceeded against by the censures of the church, and by the power of the civil magistrate.” This principle of persecution for religious opinions reigned under both Roman Catholic and Protestant alike during and immediately subsequent to the Reformation era. What Roger Williams called The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience was opposed from the beginning by the Baptists. This arose from their understanding of the nature of the church as composed of regenerate persons only, necessitating the separation of church and state, and granting liberty of conscience to all in matters of their relation to God, or any religious opinion whatsoever. This conviction drove Thomas Helwys, the pastor of the first Baptist church on English soil, to reason courageously with the king of England concerning the legitimate powers of the King and the place of the church under the kingship of the Lord Jesus Christ. After several pages in A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity showing the distinction between Israel and the church and the kings of Israel and kings subsequent to the establishing of the new covenant under the lordship of Christ, Helwys wrote:

And will our lord the king be enticed by evil men to enter upon the inheritance of the Son of God, in appointing and (by the king’s power) suffering to be appointed lords and laws in and over the house of God which are not according to the pattern; which lords, because Christ is not their buckler, nor faith their shield: nor the sword of the Spirit the weapon of their warfare, they have deceitfully seduced our lord the king bringing themselves under his protection for their defence, and getting the king’s sword into their hands to destroy all that speak or write against them, preferring their own kingdom before either Christ’s kingdom, or the kingdom and state of our lord the king as we have already showed unto the king that they with such loving patience suffer and permit so many thousands of Romists, who  by their profession and the practices of some of them are dangerously opposite to the kingdom of Christ, and to the king and state. But these Lord Bishops cannot in any wise endure one, that doth faithfully seek for reformation, because such are only adversaries to the kingdom. We still pray our lord the king that we may be free from suspect, for having any thoughts of provoking evil against them of the Romish religion, in regard to their profession, if they be true and faithful subjects to the king for we do freely profess, that our lord the king hath no more power over their consciences than over ours, and that is none at all: for our lord the king  is but an earthly king, and he hath no authority as a king but in earthly causes, and if the kings people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all human laws made by the king, our lord the king can require no more: for men’s religion to God, is betwixt God and themselves; the king shall not answer for it, neither may the king be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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