Chapter 20.2, 3, 4

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ii. God alone is Lord of the conscience, 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. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.

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 with fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.

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 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.

In section two of this chapter we confess that God has given his people "liberty of conscience." What does this mean? The Westminster Confession states that God has freed us from "doctrines and commandments of men" which are in anyway contrary to Scripture or go beyond Scripture in matters of faith and worship. There are many possible examples. Undoubtedly the Westminster divines had in view both Roman Catholicism and high Anglicanism, with their many innovations and additions to worship and life, which bring about bondage to doctrines and commandments of men. 

Evangelical, Reformed and Presbyterian churches are not immune from the same kind of bondage, perhaps in subtler forms. In some circles it occurs when ministerial vestments become requirements, or when more than modesty and respect are required in congregational attire for worship. It may be requiring particular forms of schooling for the children of church leaders, or in expecting extra-biblical forms of address in prayer as a more reverent expressions of faith. Violation of liberty of conscience may be manifest in criticizing someone for not taking part in the church's annual strawberry social, or by the minister who pressures his congregation to vote for a candidate or party in a manner which downplays scriptural alternatives. Bondage to the rules of men occurs when traditions or personal convictions, even if not inherently contrary, but simply additional to God's Word, become doctrines and commandments in matters of faith and worship.

The Confession continues by placing a sober and God-glorifying responsibility on both individual believers and the church to protect God-given liberty of conscience: "to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also." The children of God have been freed to live according to his Word by the blood of Christ; their liberty of conscience is a subset of their Christian liberty. Our Savior calls us to be marked by a loving care that preserves the liberty of our fellow believers from unbiblical constraints of our own or others' making. (Gal. 2:4-5; Col. 2:20-23).

The final two sections of this chapter of the Confession turn to warn and guard against illegitimate and destructive claims to Christian liberty. We are to beware of using claims to Christian liberty as a cloak for the pursuit of sin or lust--a reality which can play out in many forms, including viewing movies that violate God's good law while stating we are "redeeming culture." Some might claim a Sunday at the beach under the umbrella of Christian liberty, while forsaking the assembling together with the saints in worship. There are a multitude of ways in which we can pretend or presume Christian liberty, while at the same time destroying the goal of Christian liberty: that being "delivered [from]... our enemies we might serve the Lord with fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life."

The same is true in our relation to lawful civil and ecclesiastical authorities, and their lawful exercise of that authority. Christian liberty, including liberty of conscience, stands in harmony with humble and cheerful submission to both church and civil governance, as they pursue the peace and order of their respective spheres. (Rom. 13)

Dr William VanDoodewaard is Associate Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary
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