Freedom of religion. We hear those words almost every day. In fact, today both in the Church and in the world men speak of it almost daily. And no wonder, for it is one of the freedoms for which we are said to be fighting this war and for which we are paying a tremendous price. However, we may add immediately, if it happens to be true freedom of religion that is at stake, then we may well speak of it and fight for it, for true religion is a boon.
Still the question cannot be suppressed: but is it truly real freedom of religion that is at stake? And if so, will it become a blessed reality after the war is won? These questions, as well as many others, must have an answer. However, to answer them we must bear in mind that freedom of religion is closely related to Christian liberty. For when we speak of freedom of religion we naturally ask immediately what it stands for and what it implies. And in answering this question it makes a great deal of difference where we go to find the answer. For if we take notice of the different nations we soon discover that opinions vary as to what freedom of religion really means. That is true even of the Allies. Though they are fighting side by side in an all-out battle for religious freedom they have not definitely decided what it shall imply nor are they in agreement as to the conception of it. Think only of Russia. Therefore to consult the great men of the world as to the meaning of religious liberty can only lead to confusion and we are sure that even the answer of the best would hardly satisfy. However, if we look at freedom of religion in the light of Christian liberty the answer is plain, and also the reason why it is necessary but nevertheless is so often lacking. Hence we must take our subject in close connection with Christian liberty.
And speaking of Christian liberty, we may say that it is the state in which a man’s inner nature is in perfect accord with the law of God. As man is by nature he hates that law and cannot desire even for a moment to love or keep it. Therefore natural man is in bondage and his only liberty is to sin. But by a wonder of God’s grace the believer is delivered from the bondage of sin and death and he again has his delight in the law of God. In principle he again loves the Lord his God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength, and it is his desire to serve and glorify Him. Therefore, in principle he is again a free man who walks in the sphere of God’s law and thus enjoys God’s favor and peace.
And this liberty the Christian can never lose. Man may deprive him of his name and position, may behead him on the scaffold or burn him at the stake, but he will never succeed in taking from him his Christian liberty. His delight in God’s law cannot be bound with shackles of steel, and no tyrant or dictator can ever destroy it. Christian liberty, therefore, is always victorious. It is a life that cannot die.
But for that very reason the Christian’s calling is to manifest that life in the midst of the world. By sovereign grace he has been called from death unto life and he stands as a free man in the midst of a world in bondage to sin. Therefore, to the praise of his God, in the home and by the way, in church and school, in his work and play, he must walk as a free man and thus reveal the life that is from above. But to do this is also his desire. For by the indwelling of the Spirit he delights in God and it is his heart’s desire to keep all of God’s commandments. Hence, both his desire and calling is to reveal his Christian liberty, elsewhere and always.
To do this, however, the Christian in a sense is dependent upon his fellowmen. For he daily comes in contact with them and in many ways if they so desire they can interfere with his calling and hinder him in his task. If he is to be faithful to his calling and realize the desire of his heart, they must allow him to preach and teach and to walk in the light in every sphere of life. It is now the right to do this, as given him by his fellowman, that bears the name of freedom of religion. Christian liberty, therefore, refers to our relation to God, freedom of religion to our position among men. Christian liberty delivers us from the law of sin, freedom of religion gives us the right to manifest this without interference in the midst of the world.
From the foregoing it is not difficult to determine what true freedom of religion should be and of what it should consist. First of all, since Christian liberty cannot thrive without the Scriptures, it implies freedom of the Bible itself. Should the Bible be removed or shackled in any way the exercise of Christian liberty would become quite impossible, for the very life of the Christian is dependent on the Word of God. Secondly, it also implies that the Christian must have the right to interpret the Bible in its own light without being limited by any human power from without. No one may force certain views upon him, but he must be at liberty to explain Scripture as he understands it. Thirdly, it also includes the right to expound the Scriptures in preaching and teaching wherever the Christian may desire to do so. For the Church has received the injunction of her Lord to preach the gospel unto all creatures and Christian parents are admonished to declare the mighty deeds of Jehovah to the generations following. Therefore true freedom of religion must needs include the right for the gospel to run its course and to instruct men everywhere in the fear of God. And finally, it also means that the Christian must have the right to live according to the Word of God in every sphere of life. Wherever he goes and in everything he does he must be at liberty to do the will of God. In every sphere of life he must have the right to let his light shine unmolested and undisturbed.
Since the nature of true freedom of religion is such, it is not difficult to understand that it has often been found wanting in the past and that its history is one of continual battle. For natural man hates God and does not desire to see the manifestation of His grace in the exercise of Christian liberty. Therefore instead of allowing the Christian true freedom of religion he either advocates a liberty that is a sham or he seeks to deprive the Christian of liberty altogether. But regardless which course he may choose to follow, his aim always is to keep the Christian’s light under a bushel. And history proves that in the past natural man has tried this in a threefold way. Firstly, by means of the state. The state with its sword power has often been used by ungodly men to interfere with the internal affairs of the church, to persecute its members and to kindle the fire at the stake. Secondly, the church itself has often been a menace to religious liberty. That was especially the case at the time of the reformation when the Roman Catholic Church denied the common member the right to interpret the Scriptures, thus shackling the Scriptures and bringing the common member in bondage to the Church. And that was also the case at any time when an ungodly majority in the church lorded it over the faithful minority. And, finally, society too, with its public opinion, carnal lusts and hatred of the church, has often been used as an efficient instrument to deprive the Christian of his religious liberty. By persecution and by depriving the Christian of name and position in the world it has often made the exercise of Christian liberty difficult.
Nor is freedom of religion what it might and should be today, not even in our United States. For we notice in the first place, that our nation allows also freedom of irreligion. A man is at liberty to serve God or Satan, to erect a church or a theater, to walk the way to heaven or hell. In this respect our land is truly a land of the free, that is, a land in which a man may live as he pleases. This is not true freedom of religion, but only the freedom of indifference. And secondly, we notice, too, that it is not quite as easy to exercise Christian liberty in our land as it might appear. It is becoming ever more difficult for the Christian labor man to find himself a job without denying his Christian principles by joining an ungodly union. To preach the gospel over the air on a large scale is well-nigh impossible. And to let our light shine in every sphere of life already means that we have no place in society and politics and that we are hated and despised.
Therefore we should have no foolish illusions in regard to freedom of religion in the future. For Scripture tells us that men shall increase in wickedness and that sin shall abound. Rather than to build high hopes for the future we must expect that in the future the state, the false church and society will unite their power and deprive us of the liberty which we today still enjoy. Yea, even so that in the future the Christian cannot buy or sell except he have the mark of the beast.
Therefore, on the one hand, we do well to redeem the time and to appreciate and make use of the liberty which today still is ours. True, this liberty is not what it might and should be, but we must remember that even this liberty shall be taken from us in the future. When that day comes only he will be able to stand who has made use of his liberty in the past. Therefore our place in public service, in the catechism room and in society life should never be found Vacant, in order that we may be able to stand in the evil day.
But, on the other hand, it behooves us to look forward to the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. Then our Christian liberty shall be perfected. And in the new creation we shall exercise it unmolested and undisturbed.
May we learn to pray with the church of all ages: Come, Lord Jesus, yea, come quickly.