With the resurgence of reformed theology has come a rediscovery of the doctrine of Christian liberty. This doctrine is important for spiritual growth and health because, as Paul succinctly put it in Galatians 5:1, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
There are many such yokes that well-intentioned people try to place on believers—telling us what we must do and not do or how we must live if we want to be pleasing to the Lord: “Don’t groom like that.” “Dress like this.” “Don’t drink that.” “Don’t drive (or ride) that,” etc.
The same type of pressure was placed on first-century Christians. They were admonished to be circumcised, to keep certain Jewish customs and to maintain certain dietary restrictions in order to be holy. The questions raised by these pressures are what led to the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15.
Quite simply, Christian liberty is the freedom to live in ways that God that has not restricted by His commandments. As the Second London Confession of Faith (1689) puts it in chapter 21,
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from human doctrines and commandments that are in any way contrary to His Word or not contained in it. So, believing such doctrines, or obeying such commands out of conscience, is a betrayal of true liberty of conscience. Requiring implicit faith or absolute and blind obedience destroys liberty of conscience and reason as well (paragraph 2).
What God has commanded we must insist be done and do ourselves. What God has forbidden, we must insist not be done and not do. What God has neither commanded nor forbidden we are free to do or not do. Obviously, misunderstanding God’s law will inevitably lead to misunderstanding of Christian liberty.
To discover that God has set us free from the illegitimate commandments of men and that we can please Him while ignoring them is indeed liberating. The Christian’s conscience is bound to the Word of God and nothing else. We must never allow anyone to bind it on any other basis.
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These 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 (Colossians 2:20-23).
Christians are not to be intimidated or misled into thinking that adding requirements to God’s law in any way enhances spirituality. We must never give up our liberty.
However, it is vitally important to recognize that there is a difference between the essence of Christian liberty and the exercise of Christian liberty. While the former must never be sacrificed, the latter will regularly be sacrificed by mature believers.
The Scottish commentator, John Brown, provides great wisdom at this point:
“Christian liberty is an internal thing—it belongs to the mind and conscience, and, has a direct reference to God. The USE of Christian liberty is an external thing—it belongs to conduct, and, has reference to man. No consideration should prevail upon us for a moment to give up the ESSENCE of our liberty, but, many a consideration should induce us to forego the practical assertion or display of our liberty.”
This distinction is what causes Paul to admonish strong believers in Romans 14-15 not to do anything that would cause weaker Christians to stumble, even if it means at times not exercising certain liberties. “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up” (Romans 15:1–2).
Our church is encouraged to keep four primary concerns in mind when exercising Christian liberty: 1. Love for God; 2. Love for Christian brothers and sisters; 3. Compassion for unbelievers; 4. Watchfulness over one’s own soul.
The Christian is never free to sin in the name of Christian liberty. Neither is he free to live in ways that wound the consciences of weaker brothers and sisters. After all, not even our Lord lived to please Himself (Romans 15:3).
Martin Luther understood and taught on Christian liberty as clearly as anyone in the sixteenth century. In his pivotal tract, The Freedom of the Christian Man (1520), he summarizes the biblical teaching in a way that we would all do well to remember: “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.”
If we live this way we will enjoy our liberty without abusing it.