In different ways the Christian has been set free. Supremely, we are free in relation to sin. Sin made us debtors to divine justice, but Christ has paid the price. Sin made us incapable of godly behaviour, but Christ has renewed our hearts. This liberation from sin is the heart of the gospel.
But there is another type of liberty that belongs to the Christian. John Calvin wrote of ‘The liberty of the consciences of believers, which ought to be laid under no obligation in things that are not necessary’ (Institutes, III.xix.3).
Of course, this liberty of conscience is not absolute. We are under Christ’s lordship: he may lay our consciences under obligation, and in the commands of Scripture he has done so. But no one else may. No one may charge me with sinning against God where my master, in the Scriptures, does not. In all such areas I am free.
There are several important caveats to this. First, if engaging in an activity I am free to engage in, I must be convinced I am free to engage in it. It is perfectly possible to practise a hobby in a God-honouring spirit of thankfulness (1 Timothy 4:4).
If, however, I practise my hobby expecting God’s disapproval, or at least with a vague sense that he is unenthusiastic and would rather I were doing something else, I cannot be practising it in thankfulness. I am in fact being rebellious: I do not think God likes what I am doing, and yet I am doing it anyway! Paul refers to this kind of situation in Romans 14:23.
That leads to a second caveat. I must not put pressure on another believer to engage in an activity about which I know he is unsure. Nor is it merely verbal pressure from which I must refrain. If I engage in the activity when I am with that person, that itself could be unhelpful. He might follow my lead against his better judgement. I should avoid placing ‘a stumbling block’ (Romans 14:13) and, in that person’s company, waive my liberty.
Thirdly, I must beware ‘the deceitfulness of sin’ (Hebrews 3:13). A legitimate activity can subtly become an all-consuming activity. Christ gets sidelined as something else becomes my main preoccupation. While robustly defending my Christian freedom to collect stamps or use Facebook, I can be slipping into a form of idolatry.
The irony is acute: on the pretext of exercising my liberty of conscience, I contradict my more basic liberty from the dominion of sin. I must resolve with Paul, ‘“All things are lawful for me”, but I will not be enslaved by anything’ (1 Corinthians 6:12).
Fourthly, I must not confuse liberty of conscience with a foolish obstinacy that refuses to listen to anyone. It is true that my fellow Christian may not dictate my decisions in a situation where Christ has not. But my fellow Christian may have judicious advice about my decisions that deserves attention. ‘The sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel’ (Proverbs 27:9).
Clearly, then, care is required in the way we exercise our freedom. But, when all the caveats have been taken into account, Christian liberty remains a beautiful biblical concept.
We may experience the traditions or taboos of a particular Christian subculture being presented as non-negotiable divine law. We may experience someone’s intuitions or ‘revelations’ being presented as irresistible divine guidance. In such situations we can fall with relief on Romans 14:4. We have but one master; it is before him that we stand or fall.
And the same doctrine that protects me from the impositions of others also protects others from mine. In Jesus’ terms (Matthew 7:3-5) we can be quick to see the ‘speck’ where our own liberty is being violated, slow to see the plank-like dogmas we foist on others. We must remember the other part of Romans 14:4: ‘Who are you to pass judgement on the servant of another?’
Dan Peters is pastor of Newcastle Reformed Evangelical Church