Truth for Today

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Christian Liberty

by Rev. David Blunt

Justification gives the gospel its liberating power. But how then is a redeemed man to live? May he now live as he pleases, because he is not under the law, but under grace" (Rom. 6:14)? That is the idea which many have of "Christian liberty". And those of us who reject such a theory with our minds are often all too guilty of promoting it by our conduct.

Below we cover some of the key features of the Biblical teaching on the freedom enjoyed by the man in Christ Jesus.

This article was published in the Presbyterian Standard, Issue No. 17, January-March 2000.

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord." – Luke 4:18-19

I N this passage of Scripture the Lord Jesus Christ, conscious of His Messianic identity, quotes from the prophet Isaiah and makes known to the people of His home town the nature of His ministry. It is a ministry which will set sinners free.

1. Definition of Christian Liberty

Christ is aware of His own Great Commission to preach and to bring blessings to poor sinners (Psa. 40:9-10). He will bring deliverance and freedom to men's souls through the gospel. We agree with Calvin: "...Christian freedom is, in all its parts, a spiritual thing."[1] When Paul and Silas were imprisoned at Philippi, with "their feet fast in the stocks," they nevertheless enjoyed true Christian liberty, for they "prayed, and sang praises unto God" (Acts 16:24, 25). As Luther maintained: "The goodness and liberty, and, conversely, the wickedness and bondage of man, are not bodily or external. Of what benefit is it to the soul that the body is free, is hale and hearty, and lives as it pleases? On the other hand, what harm comes to the soul from the fact that the body is in bondage, is sick and weary; that, contrary to its desire, it hungers, thirsts, and suffers? The influence of none of these things extends to the soul, to free or to enslave it, to make it good or bad."[2] The ability of the creature to serve his Creator as He requires is true liberty.

Here is the highest of all human freedoms: "If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed" (John 8:36). It excels other liberties to the degree that the eternal welfare of a man's soul is of greater importance than his temporal lot (Matt. 10:28; Luke 12:4-5). Countless individuals have willingly shed their blood in defence of Christian liberty.

2. Derivation of Christian Liberty

To what do we owe our Christian liberty? The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that it is a purchase of Christ.[3] This is undoubtedly true but we must be clear that the unconverted man is not without liberty of any kind. As the Confession says earlier: "God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty that it is neither forced, nor by any absolute necessity of nature determined, to good or evil" (Ch. IX.i). What man has lost through sin is rather his ability of will.

Scripture uses several different terms to describe the sacrificial, substitutionary work of Christ as it secures spiritual freedom for God's elect. We are focussing here on the great biblical theme of redemption. In the Old Testament the term is often used to speak of a temporal, physical deliverance on a national scale (Exod. 6:6; 15:13; Jer. 31:11; Psa. 78:35). Only rarely in the OT is redemption associated with sin (Psa. 130:7-8) and contemplated at a personal level (Job 19:25). The pictures of the Firstborn-Child (Exod. 13:11-15), the Atonement-Money (Exod. 30:12-15) and the Bond-Servant (Lev. 25:47-54) all beautifully illustrate liberty bought at a cost.

In the New Testament a number of significant words are found, falling into three groups:

(a) Words which relate to the marketplace and buying or selling there. It was easy to apply these to the purchase by Christ of His people to be His eternal property (1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23). One such word indicates "to buy out," particularly the purchase of a slave with a view to his being set free: it is used to describe Christ's delivering of His church from the Law as a covenant of works (Gal. 3:13; 4:5).

(b) Words which signify a release by payment of a ransom price. Spiritually Christ sets us at liberty from our bondage to sin through His atoning death (Tit. 2:14).

(c) Words which indicate the acquiring of a possession for oneself, as God bought the church with his own blood (Acts 20:28; Eph. 1:14). The Bible insists that man cannot accomplish his own redemption and attain his own liberty (Psa. 49:7). The price of this purchase is always declared to be the precious blood of Christ – a sinless life given up in sacrificial death (1 Pet. 1:18-19; Rev. 5:9). What was accomplished by Christ is applied to sinners by the Father (Col. 1:12-13), the Son (Gal. 5:1) and the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:15; 2 Cor. 3:17). The means by which the Christian receives and enjoys this freedom is the Word of God (John 8:31-32; Rom. 6:17-18; Jam. 1:25).

3. Detail of Christian Liberty

Although the idea of redemption may on occasion refer to the future, final state of glory (Luke 21:28; Rom. 8:23; Eph. 1:14, 4:30) it generally refers to this present state of grace. An important exception is Romans 8:21: "Because the creature itself shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God."

By regeneration the sinner is brought from spiritual death to newness of life in Christ. In the act of justification he is completely delivered from condemnation, sin's penalty and the law's curse and brought into pardon, righteousness and grace. Through adoption he is liberated from slavery to sonship. In sanctification he is freed from the world, the flesh and the devil to serve God. In glorification he gets the final victory over death, the grave and damnation.

Justification is the key to real freedom. A law-righteousness can never liberate the conscience: only a removal of the guilt of sin and an ending of the reign of sin will impart true freedom.

The child of God does not enjoy the fulness of his freedom all at once. Some liberties belong to the believer's initial justification and adoption by God and these are experienced first. Other liberties pertain to the Christian's sanctification and are dependent upon the progress of that work for their conscious enjoyment.

The freedoms we have are not in every case total. For example, we find ourselves still in "this present evil world." However we are no longer of it and less and less do we share its values. We are freed from bondage to Satan but not yet from Satan as such: we know only too well his vile temptations and many accusations. The evil of our afflictions disappears, for the Lord turns them to good, but the tribulations themselves continue. The bondage of men has ceased, for there is a higher loyalty to honour. Jewish or ceremonial ordinances have passed away, but there are now new commands to keep.

In today's confused climate it must be stated that the Christian is not freed from the moral law absolutely: he is certainly no longer under it as a means of justification, but he is under it as the rule of his obedience (Matt. 5:17-19; Rom. 3:31; 7:22-25).

Not all our liberties are constant. We have passed from death to life, we shall not come into condemnation, the penalty of our sins has been remitted, we are freed from the law as a covenant, God is reconciled to us. These things are complete at once and never change. Yet even here lack of assurance may cause a true Christian to doubt whether he has ever entered into these freedoms of a child of God.

Though a believer cannot through sin totally rob himself of his liberties and return to a complete bondage, he may slide back into a partial slavery.[4] This may show itself in a lack of spiritual peace and comfort or by a return to a servile spirit as with the Galatians (Gal. 3:1-4).

4. Degree of Christian Liberty

The liberty of the Christian is similar in kind but greater in degree than that enjoyed by Old Testament saints. There is no essential difference as we see from Paul's reasoning with the Galatians. A true Christian is a direct spiritual descendant of Abraham. The patriarch believed the gospel and was blessed by it. Sinners who do likewise receive the same blessing, that is, the gift of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:7-9,14).

The increased freedom of believers under the New Testament is seen in three ways:

(a) While the Old Testament abounds with evidence of the work of the Spirit of God in the lives of believers then, it foretells a greater supply of the Spirit in a day to come (Joel 2:28; Zech. 12:10). The apostle connects this with the glorification of the Lord Jesus Christ (John 7:37-40). Not that the Spirit had not yet been given to any, but that He had not been given in the more abundant way He would be after Christ's death. Pentecost begins what is called "the ministration of the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:8).

(b) The Spirit is now the Spirit of adoption (Rom. 8:15). In Galatians 4:1-7, the apostle compares the church to a growing child. Before Christ's coming, the church was in infancy and required special care and nurture. Now the same church has reached her maturity and inheritance. We can have great boldness and confidence in approaching God (Eph. 2:18; Heb. 4:16; 1 John 5:14).

(c) In keeping with the maturity of the New Testament church, the dark types and shadows of the ceremonial law are done away with in Christ, now that the fulness of Gospel light shines in Him (Acts 15:10; Col. 2:14; 2:10).

5. Destruction of Christian Liberty

That the true freedom we enjoy in Christ might be harmed or destroyed by our own or another's actions is an ever-present danger. The great truth believers need to grasp is that there is only one legitimate Lord over our conscience (Matt. 23:8; Jam. 4:12). God will brook no rivals, for He "hath made all things for himself" (Prov. 16:4). Every enlightened conscience will share the sentiment of the apostles: "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).

As there is only one Lord so there is only one rule over the conscience, the inspired and infallible Word of God. When men command things that are opposed to the Holy Scriptures or additional to them then Christian liberty is threatened. There are many examples of this:

1) Rules Opposed to Scripture. In different churches and sects rules are imposed which require complete abstinence from certain drinks, foodstuffs and other material things. Yet the Bible says "...every creature of God is good" (1 Tim. 4:4). It is surely a mistake to locate evil in material things rather the sin lies in the hearts of men (Tit. 1:16). It is a betrayal of liberty of conscience to follow such man-made taboos.

Another example is something now facing Christian parents. There is an ongoing campaign to outlaw the corporal punishment (i.e. smacking) of children. It has succeeded in schools and now threatens the home. This is even worse than the previous example, for it is a defiance of a positive command of God (Prov. 13:24; 22:15). If such a law were ever to be passed, our liberty and our duty would lie in breaking it (Acts 4:18-19).

Luther's warning is to the point: "Friend, do not consider it a trifle to forbid what God does not forbid, to destroy the Christian liberty that cost Christ His blood, to burden consciences with sin where there is no sin. He who has the audacity to do this will also be audacious enough to commit any wrong; yea, he has thereby already renounced all that God is, teaches, and does, including His Christ."[5]

We are not in fact obliged to use our liberty in Christ to the full on every possible occasion. Calvin comments on 1 Corinthians 10:23-24: "Nothing is plainer than this rule: that we should use our freedom if it results in the edification of our neighbour, but if it does not help our neighbour, then we should forego it."[6]

2) Rules Additional to Scripture. It has ever been man's sin to multiply commandments beyond what God has given. Judaism was notorious for its Talmudic traditions which nullified the Torah (Matt. 15:3-9). Rome foists upon her followers numerous "laws of the church," concerning such things as 'holydays', fasting, and auricular confession, which are plainly extrabiblical. She requires an implicit faith, whereas Scripture encourages an informed faith, the product of an open Bible (Isa. 8:20; Acts 17:11).

That which is not of God must be refused, however difficult that may prove to be, or else true liberty of conscience will be destroyed. Paul exhorted the Galatians to "Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage" (Gal. 5:1). The tense of the verb indicates that Christ did something once and comprehensively for all: He did not free us that we should be enslaved again.

6. Design of Christian Liberty

The Westminster Confession places its chapter on Christian Liberty between that on the Law of God and that on Religious Worship. This is a happy arrangement, for it suggests to us the end or design of true Christian freedom – the holy service of God. We stress again that the liberty of a Christian is not absolute in the sense of being uncontrolled. It is true that Augustine could famously say, "Love God, and do as you like," but he was commenting on Romans 14:16: "Let not then your good be evil spoken of." He knew the constraining love of Christ, which causes the believer to walk in the appointed pathways of God, where he finds his delight in pleasing both his Lord and his neighbour. The moral law remains as a rule for the comfortable walking of the people of God.

The heresy of antinomianism is that teaching which turns Christian liberty into an ungodly licence. The doctrine of justification, rightly understood, never encourages sin and laxity. A declarative righteousness is always accompanied by the renewal of our nature. Luther wrote: "A human liberty has been achieved when laws are changed while men remain unchanged. But a Christian liberty has been achieved when men are changed while the Law remains unchanged, so that the same Law which formerly was hateful to free will now becomes welcome, because through the Holy Spirit love has been diffused in our hearts."[7] And again: "A Christian man is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian man is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all."[8]

7. Defence of Christian Liberty

God has ordained powers or governments in both the civil and ecclesiastical spheres (Rom. 13:1-8; Heb. 13:17). These are both mandated to defend true Christian freedom. The Westminster Confession deals with this aspect in Chapter XX.iv.

(a) The proper exercise of Christian freedom will never conflict with the proper exercise of the authority which has been ordained by God. We must never think that because our consciences have been set free in the sight of God that we are no longer subject to those God-given institutions which are designed to regulate our outward behaviour. The so-called "liberation theology" which is popular in places of great material poverty and political powerlessness, says otherwise. One of its leading advocates defines its aim: "The goal is not only better living conditions, a radical change of structures, a social revolution; it is much more: the continuous creation, never ending, of a new way to be a man, a permanent cultural revolution." A distorted view of the gospel leads to this political, confrontational approach to society and authority.

(b) Church and State may proceed against misuses of Christian liberty within their own spheres, according to the powers given to them by God. Men are not allowed to claim "conscience" for any opinion or activity they care: conscience is subject to the Word of God, and such claims must be judged accordingly. One example of an abuse that should be dealt with by both authorities is the desecration of the Sabbath (Neh. 13:15-22; Heb. 4:9).


There is ever the tendency in fallen man that freedom becomes a goal in itself. Freedom should be no more a goal than happiness. True liberty is the by-product of a consecrated life that has Christ as its end.


[1] Calvin, J., Institutes, III.xix.9.

[2] Plass, E.M., What Luther Says, Vol.2, p.777.

[3] Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XX.i.

[4] Bolton, S., The True Bounds of Christian Freedom, Banner of Truth edition, p.140.

[5] Plass, ibid.

[6] Calvin, J., op. cit., III.xix.12.

[7] Plass, ibid.

[8] Plass, op. cit., p.776.