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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. —Westminster Confession of Faith 20.3

What comes to mind when you hear about Christian liberty? Perhaps drinking or smoking, or how we use our free time and recreation? Or is it that there are simply some things that you believe Scripture does not speak to, making them “indifferent” and allowing a diverse range of opinions among believers? In such cases, abusing Christian liberty likely means taking our allowances too far and/or offending others when we do so.

What if the real abuse of Christian liberty lies instead in misdefining it, pressing us to ask the wrong questions? Paul wrote to the Galatians, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). By “freedom,” he had in mind deliverance from the curse of the law through Christ’s becoming a curse for us (3:13). This entailed freedom from Old Testament ceremonies such as circumcision. As we are freed from bondage to the law, the Spirit liberates us to pursue righteousness in hope, as faith works through love (vv. 5–6).

In short, Christian liberty for Paul is freedom from sin to serve the triune God freely in all things, which should be our definition of Christian liberty too. Christian liberty speaks directly of our relationship with God in Christ and how the Spirit governs what we do when we worship, work, rest, play, eat, drink, and sleep, all guided by God’s commandments in relation to Him, to others, and to ourselves.

Using Westminster Confession 20.3 as a guide, we see at least four things about Christian liberty: what it is, what guides it, where it goes wrong, and how it relates to human authority. In each case, both abuses and uses of Christian liberty will become clear as they illuminate each other.

liberty under christ

Christian liberty is both negative and positive. Negatively, liberty in Christ is freedom from sin’s curse, bondage to the world, Satan, and sin’s dominion, “from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation,” and “from the yoke of the ceremonial law” (WCF 20.1). If God justifies us, declaring us righteous in Christ, then who can condemn us (Rom. 8:33)? If the Father sent Christ to save us from sin and “the present evil age” (Gal. 1:4), to turn us from Satan to God (Col. 1:13), and to break sin’s dominion over us (Rom. 6:14), then what can overcome the Spirit’s work in making us like Christ? Though we experience suffering, death, and the grave, does not God work even these things for our good and ultimate perfection in Christ (8:28–30)? God be praised that we will never suffer damnation (John 5:24; Rom. 8:1; 1 Thess. 1:10; 5:9), the God-man’s having been forsaken on the cross instead of us (Matt. 27:46). On top of all this, we experience freedom from circumcision, sacrifices, priests, ceremonies, and a temple because Christ fulfilled and removed them all by fulfilling them (Col. 2:14).

Positively, Christian liberty is freedom to be who God made us to be. We are free to worship the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit (John 4:24; Phil. 3:3), having “free access to God” (WCF 20.1; see also Rom. 5:1–2). Righteous obedience to God through joyful and careful law-keeping is true freedom, because who is freer than the person who becomes most like God? Christ’s yoke is easy and His burden light (Matt. 11:30) because “when justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous” (Prov. 21:15). We imitate God “not out of slavish fear” (WCF 20.1) but as His beloved children (Eph. 5:1). Though Old Testament saints knew these benefits, we have bolder access to God’s throne (Heb. 4:14–16) and greater power of the Spirit to love and obey God than they did (John 7:38–39). This is why Christian liberty is freedom to serve the triune God freely in all things.

The free Christian submits to parents, elders, and civil authorities because God appointed them.

The first abuse of Christian liberty is shifting the question toward what we do with our free time away from who we are in Christ. Without building on this foundation, all questions about what we should eat, drink, watch, or play become like building on sinking sand instead of on solid rock. Those who hear Christ’s words and do them are like those who build on the rock (Matt. 7:24) because they could not be free to hear and obey Him unless Christ first freed them from sin to know and serve God.

guided liberty

What guides Christian liberty? Christian liberty is freedom from “the doctrines and commandments of men” (WCF 20.2). This means that our consciences, which convict us of right and wrong, are subject to God alone. Conscience is a servant rather than a master. It can be right or wrong in convicting us of what is right and wrong. Through Christ’s Word, the Spirit trains us in the character of our Father. Conscience can’t ultimately be our guide because conscience itself has a guide.

Doubtless bound by conscience, the Jewish leaders took offense when Jesus’ disciples ate with unwashed hands (Mark 7:1–2). Following human tradition, they washed (literally, “baptized”) “cups and pots and copper vessels, and dining couches” (v. 4). Quoting Scripture (Isa. 29:13), which alone is the final and infallible guide to conscience, Jesus said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:6–7). The issue was not proper sanitation before meals but demanding practices that God never commanded as means of devotion to Him. In matters of “faith, or worship . . . , to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience” (WCF 20.2). Adding human traditions to God’s service betrays liberty of conscience because God said, “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you” (Deut. 4:2). Those who are God’s servants must not be sold as slaves of men (Lev. 25:42) in body or in mind. Being “bought with a price,” we must not “become bondservants of men” (1 Cor. 7:23). Other people’s consciences cannot dictate what we believe and how we worship and live before God. Such “human precepts and teachings . . . have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:22–23). Such practices destroy reason, which points to God as our highest authority.

Abuses of Christian liberty abound here. For example, when people add human traditions to Scripture, they often simultaneously subtract from God’s law. Jesus observed that the Jewish tradition of dedicating funds to God prevented people from caring for aging parents, citing Exodus 20:12 and 21:17 against the practice. Pious-sounding extreme self-denial can be slavery rather than liberty when Scripture does not require it. Instances abound in the nineteenth-century missionary movement when missionary societies and churches urged men to leave wives and children behind to reach lost people in foreign countries. None should doubt the sincerity of such people, but when God commands us to care for wives and children, was this not leaving the commandments of God to hold the traditions of men (Mark 7:8)? While we must be considerate toward those whose consciences differ from ours (see Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 8–10), letting others’ consciences dictate the course of our lives instead of God’s law is slavery rather than freedom. Christians should engage in honest God-focused and charitable debate over points of disagreement with others, but as Paul asked, “Why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience?” (1 Cor. 10:29). The bottom line is living our lives conscientiously before God in everything, showing kindness and consideration to others:

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but the advantage of others. (vv. 31–33)

where “liberty” goes wrong

Where can supposed Christian liberty go wrong? Christian liberty is freedom for righteousness. Sin is slavery, but in a metaphorical sense, so is liberty. “Liberty” in pursuing sin is freedom from righteousness, which is slavery to sin and death. Yet “slavery” to righteousness is freedom from sin and death to serve God in Christ (Rom. 6:15–23). In other words, “liberty” never means that you can do whatever you want. Someone is always your master, God or self, and you cannot serve both (Matt. 6:24).

We can detect abuses of Christian liberty here by noting that liberty is proactive rather than reactive. Liberty asks what the Lord wants us to do rather than what is wrong with what we like to do. The issue is not whether we have liberty to watch movies, to drink wine, to eat food offered to idols, or to play sports. The question is whether we self-consciously watch, drink, eat, or play in Christ’s name, thanking the Father through Him (Col. 3:17). Because this involves prayerful critical thinking, Christians sometimes draw lines here in different places. One may know how to watch a movie to God’s glory while another may not, but the fact that one believer does not understand the reasons for another’s practices does not mean that the person does not have reasons. Of course, abuse comes in the back door here when we simply find reasons to justify what we like doing because we don’t want to give things up for Christ’s sake. The real issue is learning to bear the fruit of the Spirit in everything we do as we subject ourselves to God. Psalm 37:3–4 tells us to delight ourselves in the Lord and then to ask for whatever we want. He gives us the desires of our hearts when our desires conform to His own (1 John 5:14). Christian liberty is delighting ourselves in the Lord and then doing whatever we want because what we want aligns with what God wants. Since God calls us to do more than work, eat, and sleep in life and even loves it when we enjoy life for His sake (Eccl. 2:24), righteous living is multifaceted and far-reaching.

liberty to submit to authority

How does Christian liberty relate to human authority? The free Christian submits to parents, elders, and civil authorities because God appointed them (1 Peter 2:13–14). At this point, some will object: We need to obey human authority only so far as it reflects God’s law. Though this is true, why is it our gut reaction to authority? Is it because we transform submission to lawful authority into agreement with our own principles rather than self-denial? Are we reactively responding to authority, or are we proactively seeking to honor God by honoring authority? True freedom is obeying Christ through obeying parents (Eph. 6:1–3), even when we don’t understand or agree with their reasons. Even Jesus served God freely and gladly when He submitted to the high priest’s putting Him under oath to answer (Matt. 26:63), which led to His crucifixion. Jesus was freer obeying the Father on a cross than many Christians are when they resist a proper rebuke from parents, church elders (Heb. 13:17–19), and police officers while living quiet and easy lives.

Sometimes American believers say that all Christians should go on short-term missions to appreciate the freedoms that they have at home. Does this reflect a wrong view of freedom? While traveling the world should make us thankful for political liberties, we can be free in a poor country with oppressive laws, and we can be slaves in a rich country with just laws. It is not our circumstances that make us free but the Spirit’s work in our hearts subjecting us to Christ. Are we more eager to oppose governing authority, insulting officials along the way, than we are to honor them as far as possible “for the sake of conscience” before God (Rom. 13:5)?

our most-free god

Another way to reframe true liberty is to ask, Who is most free? The triune God is most free, sitting above the heavens and doing whatever He pleases (Ps. 115:3). He is “righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works” (Ps. 145:17). God’s freedom lies in being good and doing good (Ps. 119:68) because He is originally and independently good. Our Father gives every good and perfect gift because in Him “there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). God is free to be unchangeably good.

Under God, angels and human beings are freest when they are most like God. True freedom is the freedom to obey God’s commandments through the Spirit, taking us out of slippery paths and placing our feet on wide, steady ground (Ps. 18:36). Freed from sin, we are free to learn to become like Christ in thought, word, and deed. The issue is less what we do with life than it is how we do it. Christians and non-Christians work, sleep, eat, drink, rest, play, and spend time with their families. Learning to do the right thing in the right way at the right time as the Spirit writes God’s law on our hearts is what it looks like to be truly free under the gospel (Jer. 31:33). The whole creation longs for the perfection of this kind of freedom when all of God’s saints enjoy the fullness of their adoption at the resurrection (Rom. 8:21).

In the end, Christian liberty is more about how and why you do what you do than about what you do with your life. You can be a free Christian reading your Bible, keeping the Lord’s Day, going to work, playing tennis, watching a movie with your children, drinking a glass of wine, and smoking a pipe when you self-consciously enjoy everything in its place and in moderation to the glory of the triune God and under His law. Conversely, you can do all these things and be enslaved to sin simply by losing sight of God in Christ while you do them. You must be a slave to righteousness in Christ rather than a slave to sin in the flesh. The hard part is learning, by the Spirit, to bring “every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) in mundane things as well as in directly “spiritual” things.

So to avoid abusing Christian liberty, we end where we began: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).

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