I was asked to write an article on the topic of the liberty of the Christian conscience. I will attempt to do this, although I am not sure the following will quite be what the brother had in mind when he chose this topic for an article in this publication. In writing upon this topic we will stay very close to the Scripture’s account of our topic. We will attempt to set forth the principles of the Scripture as they address our topic. Of course, this course of action is imperative, for these principles rule our hearts and lives as we consider any aspect of our Christian calling and life.
It seems to me that there is some real danger today of being so concerned with the life and walk of God’s children, that in addressing ourselves to these things we end up setting forth various exhortations or admonitions without turning to the Scriptural foundations of these exhortations. This can easily result in such an emphasis on the outward walk of God’s people, the walk of sanctification that meets the eye, that one can come near to the error of the Pharisees. When God’s children are exhorted unto a certain Christian walk, they must needs know the ground for the exhortation, as well as the possibility of fulfilling it. That possibility is the wondrous grace of our God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
Let us see if we can do this in treating the subject of this article. When we speak of the liberty of the Christian conscience, we consider the effect of the grace in Christ Jesus upon God’s children. It is by this grace that, through the operation of the Spirit of our Lord, His Word is so applied unto our hearts that we are made free from sin to serve our God in the true liberty of the children of God’s covenant.
But what is this liberty? By liberty do we mean that we can do anything at all, and still have a free conscience? Does it mean that the law has no longer anything to say to us? Does it mean that we may sin that grace may abound? May we answer the above, not from reason, but by the Word of God!
We shall of necessity then look more closely to the fruit of grace given to the elect by Christ Jesus, our Lord.
In the first place we understand that our first parents were created by God in a covenant relationship to Himself as His children. They were made to partake of His covenant communion and fellowship. So created in the image of God were they that they had true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. Hence they knew God and His will, and they were able to walk according to that knowledge in holiness. And they were judged righteous before God, as they walked before Him as His covenant servants.
Therefore their conscience was free. For willingly, in covenant love, they served God according to His will, were judged right, and tasted His blessed love, as God walked with them in the garden. Theirs was true liberty in the covenant service of the living God, and they were blessed at the tree of life.
But man by sin fell from this blessed place before God. Created able to fall, man sinned, walking in disobedience, and plunged himself and all his posterity into the darkness of sin and death. The fruit of the fall is that man lost the image of God. In sin he became unrighteous, a sinner, a liar! He corrupted his whole nature, became totally depraved, and was judged to be guilty, worthy only of death. So we are. And so is all of mankind-by nature dead in sins and trespasses (Eph. 2:1). The fruit of sin is corruption so great that man can do nothing but sin. The Scripture (Gen. 6:5) says thus of man, “that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
By nature we are bound to sin, and we have therefore come under the condemnation of the law. And thus, too, we are come under the curse of the law. “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God…” (Gal. 3:10-11a). This means indeed that all men come into condemnation and death. And as this testimony of the Word is applied unto us by the Spirit of Christ, our conscience testifies against us that we are sinners and guilty. And indeed our conscience is bound by misery and sin.
But at this point you may ask the question, but what of the ungodly? They walk as though they are not affected at all by their sin. They seem as if they have a free conscience to do as they please. For of the wicked we read, “There are no bands in their death; but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued like other men,”—even when in their sin, “pride compasseth them about as a chain; violence covereth them as a garment” (see Psalm 73). It appeared to Asaph that the wicked have a free conscience; and in weakness of faith he was tempted to view their portion in this light as good. But is the wicked conscience good when it leads them to swifter destruction? For it leads them by the providence of God in the way of their sin to swifter destruction! And it is true of them who are of the flesh that they, “do mind the things of the flesh” (Rom. 8:5a). “For to be carnally minded is death” (Rom. 8:6a). The conscience of the natural man is a conscience that leads them from death to death. It is hardened by sin unto greater sin, and thus leads them unto destruction. And remember there is no escaping the testimony of God that the fruit of sin is death! Thus, too, we must conclude that the conscience of natural man is far from free. But it is thoroughly bound unto death!
But, beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ, we are delivered from the testimony of the law. That is, we have been delivered from the judgment of God that we are guilty, worthy of death! Even as our God has chosen His elect in Christ from before the foundation of the world, so He has redeemed us from the curse of the law by the death of His Son, Whom He sent to deliver us from sin and its guilt. Christ Jesus has completely taken away the curse of our sin by bearing away God’s wrath against us. And we who are in Him are delivered from judgment. We are justified in the obediently spilled blood of our Savior, Jesus Christ, “who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification” (Rom. 4:25).
Further, our Lord, after having, “by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3). From there Jesus sheds forth His Spirit upon us; and by the power of His Spirit and by His Word, Christ calls us out of darkness, into the light of God’s fellowship and love. Our Lord applies unto our hearts that which He wrought upon the cross! He assures us that our sin is forgiven, and that we are heirs of righteousness. The fruit of this wonder work of God’s grace in us by Christ’s Spirit and Word is that for God’s children “there is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:1-2). This testimony of God’s Word applied to my heart by the Spirit of Christ frees my conscience, so that my sins can no longer condemn me, but I have the conscious testimony that they are cleansed by the blood of Christ! In Christ I am saved and am freed from all condemnation. This gives us rich comfort and a truly liberated conscience—hear the words of the apostle, “What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, Who is even at the right hand of God, Who also maketh intercession for us” (Rom. 8:31-34). Also the very sin that we commit when it rises up to testify against us, cannot convict our conscience, for we are covered by Christ’s blood and He stands as our Mediator at the right hand of God.
But then does this mean that I may in this liberty of my conscience do whatever I want, knowing that if I sin, my sin shall be forgiven? Jesus says through the apostle, “For brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh” (Gal. 5:13). And Paul answers the question, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid, How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (Rom. 6:1).
The fruit of the preaching of Christ crucified and raised is such that, ingrafted into the body of Christ, we by the working of the Spirit live out of Christ! Then, beloved, we flee sin and seek God according to His Word.
Be mindful that there is no liberty for the fish which jumps out of the boundaries of the lake unto the shore. There only death awaits it! So also the child of God, quickened by the Spirit of Christ, called by His Word, and saved by the grace of God, lives in the complete liberty of conscience within the law of God, and according to His Word—outside of which there is only death. Thus the Word stands: “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law” (Rom. 3:31).
Our God in Christ promises us that as He has in eternal love chosen us His covenant people, and as He has redeemed us from the curse of our sin, so He shall deliver us from sin and the ways of death. May we, therefore, by grace in the liberty of conscience of the saved in Christ walk in true thankfulness according to the Word of life in true liberty. “Being confident of this very thing, that He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).