(See Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 20)[xxv]
If I were to ask you what was the greatest thing enjoyed by the Western world, what would your answer be? What is it that makes the West the West? Surely it would be summed up in one word: Liberty! Liberty or Freedom of speech and expression is what the West is noted for.
Now, where did this liberty come from? Were people in the West always free to voice their opinions? Or was there a time when the Western nations were under tyrannical regimes telling you what you could think, say, and do? Surely it was the Reformation that began in 1517 that brought with it the Liberty we now enjoy in the West.
Before that time the Western nations were in bondage to the papacy. The Pope of Rome would dictate who could marry, on what days you could and couldn’t eat meat and so forth. The papacy kept the western nations in bondage by binding the consciences of men to its traditions and false teachings. But the Reformation changed all that. The Reformation brought freedom from the bondage to all the commandments of men that were contrary to Scripture. How? Well, the Reformation was about rediscovering the Gospel.
Now, the Gospel is sharper than a two-edged sword. The Gospel sword cuts us free FROM bondage. But it also at the same time cuts us free FOR liberty. The Apostle Paul sums up the liberty enjoyed by those nations who have come under the Gospel, (i.e., the Western nations), where he says in Galatians 5:1: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.”
Now, you would be correct if you thought that Paul is addressing only Christians in that passage of Scripture. But the point is that the Liberty enjoyed in the Western nations is on account of the Christian Gospel as found only in God’s Word. Remove the Gospel and you effectively remove the people’s freedoms. That’s what Roman Catholicism had done for centuries. But reveal the Gospel and you effectively remove the people’s bondage. This is what the Reformation did for the European nations under Rome’s bondage.
The Liberty of the Christian
Liberty is a long list for the Christian. The list includes liberty from: a) The guilt of sin. b) The condemning wrath of God. c) The curse of the Moral Law. d) The bondage to this present evil world. e) The bondage of Satan. f) The dominion of sin. g) The evil of sufferings. h) The sting of death. i) The victory of the grave. j) Everlasting damnation.
Let’s consider each of these liberties briefly. Because of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross God no longer considers the Christian guilty of breaking His Moral Law. God atoned for the Christian’s guilt by imputing it to His Son who received, and paid in full, the punishment we were due for our sins while on the cross.
And because God has removed the Christian’s guilt from him, the Christian no longer has the condemning wrath of God hovering over him like dark clouds of destruction. This means that the curse of God’s Moral Law has been removed from the Christian.
Christ became a sin-offering or curse-offering on the cross and removed the sin and curse from the Christian. And because the guilt of sin has been removed from the Christian, and the condemning wrath of God, and the curse of the Moral Law, the Christian no longer lives in darkness. Which is to say that the Christian has been presently translated or transferred from the spiritual darkness of this present evil world and into Christ’s kingdom of light. Therefore the Christian is no longer in bondage to the false teachings and the evil philosophies produced by fallen men in the fallen world.
And because he is no longer in bondage to false teaching, the devil has no power over him. Therefore the devil’s cold, clammy, slimy claws have been removed from the Christian. He no longer is able to pull our strings or use us a ventriloquist uses a dummy. Christ’s cross has removed the devil’s hand from up our back. And because the devil has lost his grip on us our bondage or slavery to sin has been broken. The devil only had to suggest things to us and our sinful nature inclined us to obey his suggestions. But now we follow Christ. We don’t listen to the voice of the stranger.
And because we are safe in the hand of Christ and God we no longer suffer evil afflictions. Unlike the non-Christian, the Christian’s sufferings are not judgments of God. Rather they are chastenings of our Heavenly Father for our own good. As the Scripture says: “My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD… For whom the LORD loves He chastens…” Hebrews 12:5&6.
Therefore the terrible things that happen to you (the Christian) are not happening to you because God hates you, but because God loves you! They are not evil sufferings, but fatherly chastisements. And even death itself has had its sting removed for the Christian. The Christian no longer has to fear death, because it is not the end of the line for him. Unlike the non-Christian who faces everlasting death, the Christian has everlasting life.
And the beauty of everlasting life is that the Christian has it now. Therefore the sting is removed from death for the Christian because he knows that the grave has no power over him. He sees Christ’s resurrection as his own victory over the grave. Therefore for the Christian being put in the grave is like a child being tucked into bed. For it is God our heavenly Father who puts us in our graves when it is time for us to go! But just as He awakened His Son from the grave on that Sunday morning, so will He awaken all His adopted children when it is time for us to get up again.
Though the soul does not sleep, the Christian in his grave is, as it were, ‘sleeping in heavenly rest.’ But, as the Scripture says, there is no peace, no rest for the wicked. However, the Christian has been delivered from everlasting damnation; i.e., restless torment.
So, the liberty enjoyed by the Christian is something to rejoice about! And the Christian does indeed rejoice as one who has heard good news! And he gives thanks to God for that good news. And he does so by coming to God in prayer through Jesus Christ who has given him free access to God through His name on account of His shed blood.
The Christian also delights to worship God in the name of Jesus Christ. And the Christian seeks to worship and serve God by rendering obedience to Him. Therefore God’s Moral Law as summarized in the Ten Commandments is a delight to the Christian. The Christian delights in God’s Moral Law because it instructs him in holiness and righteousness. It’s his rule of life, everlasting life!
And none of what we’ve already looked at was any different for believers in the Old Testament. Abraham is the father of all believers. And “…those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham.” Galatians 3:9. The same Gospel we believe was preached beforehand to Abraham (Galatians 3:8), and all believers after him.
The main difference between Old Testament believers and ourselves is that our liberty has been extended further than theirs. The Old Testament believers had Ceremonial Laws to contend with. These Ceremonial Laws pointed to the Christ who was to come. But now that He has come they are no longer needed. So, we don’t need a glorious temple with all its sacrificial system to come before God. Now we have access to God’s throne with greater boldness. And not only that, but New Testament believers have the Holy Spirit in a way not enjoyed by the church in the Old Testament.
To be sure the Holy Spirit was present and ministered to the Old Testament saints. But we have a fuller measure of the Holy Spirit. Which is to say that the God who dwelt in the midst of His people between the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, now dwells in the hearts of His people. Which is to say that believers are now the Temple of the living God. Therefore the liberty each Christian has today is that we each have personal access to God.
We no longer need to make annual pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem to access God. So, in a word, the Liberty of the Christian is tied up in the personal access he has to the living God. All the old barriers and obstacles (including our sin) have been removed by Jesus Christ. Everything that stood in our way to God’s throne has been removed by Him.
It is the message of the Gospel that demolishes all these barriers and removes all obstacles. However, the more the Gospel is hid away, the more the barriers of sin are again replaced and rebuilt. Therefore, it is the duty of every Christian to do his bit to keep the Gospel fires burning. This he does by making sure his own conscience is kept clear of all barriers and obstacles to God.
The Liberty of the Conscience
God alone is Lord of the conscience. And if God alone is Lord of the conscience then God alone can grant liberty of conscience. We have seen already the liberty He grants us as Christians. But what does it mean to have liberty of conscience?
Liberty of conscience is the freedom the Christian has to say no to anything contrary to God’s Moral Law. To be sure there might be a price to pay for going against the teachings and commandments of men that are contrary to God’s Word. Just ask the martyrs! However, it’s as Peter and the other Apostles said: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” Acts 5:29b.
To obey the teachings and commandments of men that are contrary to God’s Law is to betray liberty of conscience. That’s why Paul, as already mentioned, is exhorting Christians in Galatians 5:1 to “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.”
In Romans 14:2 and 15:1 Paul talks about weak believers who are pernickety about what they may and may not eat and drink. This is to say that the one who is weak is conscience-bound. He thinks he is sinning by eating certain foods and drinking certain drinks. And the trouble is that were he to eat and drink that which he thinks he’s forbidden to eat or drink he would be sinning, even though the thing he is doing is not necessarily sinful in itself.
Thus, to go against your own conscience is to sin against God. Therefore, if God alone is Lord of the conscience it would make sense to make sure that God alone has banned the food or drink you are refusing before you bind your own conscience.
However, this area of food, drink, clothing etc. is the area of the adiaphora, i.e., things indifferent. In other words these are the types of things God leaves up to the conscience. We see this illustrated in a careful reading of Romans chapter fourteen, for example.
John Calvin based a great deal of his cultural philosophy on the principle of ‘things indifferent.’ He says: “The third part of Christian freedom lies in this: regarding outward things that are of themselves ‘indifferent,’ we are not bound before God by any religious obligation preventing us from sometimes using them and other times not using them, indifferently. And the knowledge of this freedom is very necessary for us, for if it is lacking, our consciences will have no repose and there will be no end to superstitions.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. 3, 19, 7).
The Romish church is famous for binding the consciences of its people by forbidding things permitted by God, and permitting things forbidden by God: as are all Communistic States, for example. The only way to combat this type of bondage is to do what the Prophet Isaiah says in Isaiah 8:20: “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” Is this a strange thing to tell those who have been given liberty by Christ’s Gospel? I hope you can see that the liberty you have been given is the liberty to say no to anything contrary to God’s Word. Surely you can see that your liberty as a Christian comes, not from discarding God’s Law, but rather from studying it and applying it in your life. Which is to say that the more you understand the nature and content of God’s Moral Law the freer you become.
Think about it, if you try to play soccer without knowing the rules you’ll end up being sent off for breaking the rules. If you try to drive a car through a busy city without knowing the rules of driving you’ll be in big trouble. You’ll end up in all sorts of traffic jambs and you’ll be a danger to yourself and to others.
Would you call this kind of thing freedom? Or does it sound more like bondage to ignore and even reject the laws of driving? You shouldn’t even be on the soccer pitch or on the road if you don’t know and obey the rules! Well, apply this principle to living on God’s earth.
Abide by God’s Law for mankind and you will know great freedom on earth. And the more you study, know, and apply God’s Law, the greater your freedom will be. Therefore make sure your conscience is not bound by things contrary to God’s Law, for that is to be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.
The Liberty of Culture
Now, we’ve already mentioned the adiaphora, i.e., that great realm of ‘things indifferent.’ The more you study God’s Word the more you’ll learn how vast this realm is. And the more you learn of its vastness, the more you’ll begin to see the great liberty God has given us for developing culture.
This is where Calvinism comes into it’s own. For Calvinism is about doing all things to the glory of God i.e., eating, drinking, or whatever you do. This, in a word, is the regeneration of culture and cultural activity. For Calvin demonstrated from the Scriptures that neither Church nor State has the authority to bind the conscience regarding things that God calls ‘indifferent.’ Therefore, because there is an area of life outside of the jurisdiction of Church and State, men were now at liberty to develop those things that are to do with culture - such as art, music, architecture, food, drink, clothing etc., - without Church or State interference.
This is the freedom we enjoy in Western nations. And it was the Gospel that brought this freedom. This is the freedom to fulfill the Cultural Mandate given by God to man in Genesis (1:26f.)
Now then, paradoxically, the Gospel brings us liberty to keep God’s Law. Therefore to keep God’s Law is to keep our liberty. God’s Law in the realm of the Church is administered through the Session of Elders at the local level. And God’s Law in the realm of the State is administered through Civil Authorities, (Romans 13). And we have seen that God’s Law is administered in the realm of cultural activities through our own conscience.
This third realm where God’s Law gives freedom is the realm where conscience rules. And God alone is the Lord of conscience, and not Church or State.
So, how does a Christian maintain the liberty purchased for him by Christ? He keeps that blood-bought freedom by knowing and keeping the Moral Law out of love for God. For Jesus says, “If you love Me keep My commandments.” John 14:15. Therefore if you would abide in His love you should keep His commandments. For He goes on to say in John 15:10: “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.”
Now, we are quite aware that we don’t always keep His commandments. But how are we aware that we don’t always keep His commandments? Well, it’s because of our conscience, isn’t it? Our conscience accuses us when we go against it. So, what we are saying then is that you are to make sure that your conscience is bound only by what God says in His Word, and not anything said by men contrary to His Word. As Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:21&22: “Test all things, hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” How do you know what is good and what is evil? Well, it’s “To the law and to the testimony!” The Word of God alone is the rule of life for the Christian. As the Psalmist says, “Your word have I hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You.” Psalm 119:11.
Now, as we begin to work toward a close, I think we’ve sufficiently illustrated that the liberty we’re speaking of is not the liberty to sin. Neither is it a type of liberty that will lead a person to sin. So, in a word, the liberty we have is liberty from bondage for obedience. Which is to say that we have been delivered from all our enemies (sin, Satan, death, the grave etc. etc.) that we might worship and serve the Lord without fear.
God by His grace has granted us liberty that we might serve Him in holiness and righteousness all the days of our lives. Now, all of this liberty makes us most valuable members of the Church and society. Which is to say that we are in general law-abiding citizens of state and church. The church has a board of discipline, just as the state has a board of discipline. The Session of Elders operates in the ecclesiastical realm and the Civil Authorities in the realm of the State. But both realms operate under the authority of God. Which is to say that the one complements the other by encouraging obedience to God.
To be sure you may think that this is stretching things a little bit when you look at the governing authorities in Australia (and other Western nations) today. However, just sit down and have a right good think about what the governing authorities are telling us to do or not to do, and see if it lines up with the Word of God. Yes, you’ll find the odd thing here and there, but all in all surely you can see that the liberty we enjoy in this great nation of ours is Gospel liberty.
So, we see then that the Civil Authority in its sphere and the Church in its sphere are at liberty to punish those who publish and practice such opinions contrary to the Moral Law of God. For example, you can see how this applies to the Fourth Commandment. Should the Civil Authorities permit huge department stores to open on the Christian Sabbath? The Civil Authorities must consider what impact Sunday opening will have on the Church. So, we see even in this brief example that Church and State need to work together to promote a God-honouring society.
The Western nation that forgets its Reformational roots is becoming entangled again with a yoke of bondage. Remember indeed that it was the conscience set free from the thought-control of the Church and the State that enabled the Western nations to prosper and develop culturally from the time of the Reformation till today. Remember that the conscience of the people was liberated by the rediscovery of the Gospel. No longer could the Church or the State keep the people in bondage in the realm of the adiaphora.
Henry R Van Til attributes this great emancipation of Western thought to Calvin (which we’ve already touched on): “Now Calvin proclaimed alongside of church and state a third realm, an area of life that has a separate existence and jurisdiction. It is called the sphere of the adiaphora, the things indifferent. This is the court of conscience. No pope nor king may here hold sway.
This area is not restricted to a few insignificant matters of taste and opinion among individuals, but it includes music, architecture, technical learning, science, social festivities, and the everyday question, ‘what shall we eat and what shall we drink and where-withal shall we be clothed?’ Now Calvin proclaims freedom from church and state for this whole large area of life in his doctrine of Christian liberty, making man responsible and accountable to God alone in his conscience.” (The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, p. 99).
Let us “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.” We do this by reminding ourselves what we’ve been set free from. And also what we’ve been set free for. We have been delivered from the hands of all our enemies that we might serve the Lord, without fear, in holiness and righteousness, all the days of our lives.
“Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” 1 Corinthians 10:31.