*Address delivered at our last Convention of Protestant Reformed Young People’s Societies, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
At the present time we hear a good deal about the fascinating subject, of liberty. Main aspires after freedom. He hates to be enslaved. He wants freedom of movement, freedom of soul and body, freedom of the mind, of the will, of conscience. Much of the history of the world, especially of its wars and revolution is to be explained from the conflict, between this search for freedom and the powers of oppression. And the present world conflict is said to be such a war for liberty for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom from fear and from want. Nazism with its ideal of the absolute State prepared its instruments of destruction for its own aggrandizement, and to enslave the world. And the allied nations rallied around the banner of liberty to meet the foe. When, therefore, I shall try to make a few remarks about the subject that was announced, I may expect your interest and attention from the outset, without any more words of introduction.
However, we must at once call your attention to the fact, that much that is presented as true liberty in our times cannot be accepted as such by those that understand and believe the Holy Scriptures as the infallible source of their knowledge, and who strand in the liberty wherewith Christ has made them free. For many centuries there have been in the nominally Christian world two fundamentally different conceptions of liberty, two currents of search after freedom, which, though widely different, are often confused. The one has its source in the Spirit of Christ, its criterion in the Holy Scriptures, and runs over the Reformation of the sixteenth century; the other has its source in the heart and mind of the natural man, its criterion in man’s own philosophy, and runs over the Renaissance of pre-Reformation origin. The one declares the authority of the Bible, the other the autonomy of man. And I fear that also today the two are frequently confused, so much so, that when, one speaks of religious liberty he often means irreligious liberty. We must, therefore, clearly distinguish the too.
I. Christian Liberty. In order to understand the nature of true liberty, and that is Christian, liberty, we must from the outset consider it as a relation to God and to His will. Failure to do this, and merely to look upon liberty as a relation to God, results in a false conception of freedom, and leads to the confusion of liberty with the so-called autonomy of man. According to the latter view, man is really the measure of all things. He is independent. He is his own lord and master. He is his own law, creates his own world, makes his own God, is the criterion of all things. According to this proud philosophy, freedom is the state in which man thinks as he pleases, wills as he pleases, speaks and acts as he pleases, not only without being interfered with by his fellowmen, especially by the power of the State, but without being limited and determined by any objective norm or standard, except that which man may put up for the common good, the humanly conceived wellbeing of State and Society. The infidel leaders of the French Revolution raised the slogan of “liberty, equality, and fraternity”, but what they understood by liberty is evident from this other slogan: “Ni Dieu ni maitre”: No God or Master! The so-called freethinker entertains the same conception of liberty, when he proposes to emancipate his mind from the shackles of all objective standards, more particularly from that of the Word of God, and to be an independent source of truth in himself. According to this view, religious liberty is the freedom to worship or not to worship, to confess God or to deny Him, to serve the true God or to make one’s own idol. Liberty is merely considered in a relation of man to man. God is not considered.
However, it requires little thought to understand that this is not true freedom, but licentiousness. Man is not his own maker. And, therefore, he is not self-determined, and he cannot be autonomous. God is the Creator, and man is the creature. God only is autonomous, and man’s liberty can never be other than a creaturely freedom. God determined him, his being and nature, his soul and body, his mind and will; and God, too, determined man’s relation to God and to all the rest of creation. Man is not above the law, but under the law. He is not his own law, but he is bound to the law of God. And liberty for man is not to be lawless, neither does it consist in this that in an external sense he tries to conform his outward life to the code of the law of God; but it consists in this, that his inner nature is in conformity with the will of God, so that he moves and acts and lives, wills and thinks and desires freely within the scope of that law. There is a law of God for every creature. And this law is increated in the very nature of each creature. The law of the fish is to live in the water, of the bird to soar in the sky, of the tree to be rooted in the ground; and this law is quite in harmony with the nature of each creature. Liberty for each of these creatures; is that it can live itself out within the scope of its respective laws. And within that law each creature finds its happiness, its true freedom from fear and from want. And the same is true for man. God determined his nature, and the law that is in harmony with that nature; and liberty for man consists in this that he freely moves within the sphere of the law of God.
If we bear this in mind it should not be difficult to determine what is true freedom for man. It is to love the Lord his God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength, to serve and glorify Him, and thus to live in the sphere of His favor and His everlasting covenant friendship. For God made man after His own image and in His own likeness. His nature was adapted to know God with a true knowledge of love, to will His will, and to seek and find His blessed fellowship. He was made a covenant creature. Hence, freedom for man is the state in which he willingly subjects his mind to the mind of God, his will to the will of God, land has his delight in the law of God according to the inner man. To be motivated in all his life by the love of God, and thus to walk in true knowledge of God, perfect righteousness and holiness, that is man’s liberty!
And this means especially two things, which it is important for us to remember. First of all it means, that for us sinners this liberty is only in Christ, through His Spirit: where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty! And, secondly, it implies that for us true freedom can be consciously possessed and enjoyed only through the Scriptures. By nature, man is not free, but in bondage. For he sinned, and he is a sinner. He is in the bondage of condemnation, for there rests upon him a load of guilt which he can never blot out, a debt which he can never pay. He has no right to liberty. He is a child of wrath in himself. And being guilty, he is condemned to be a slave of sin. Under sin’s dominion is he. He is shackled with the chains of corruption, mot outwardly, but from within. His mind is in darkness, so that he cannot know God; his will is shackled so that he cannot will the will of God. In this true sense of the word, all men are not born free, but they are born slaves. And, therefore, liberty is in Christ only. He obtained the right to set us free through His cross and resurrection, by the which we are justified. And He received from the Father the power to set us free by the Spirit which He received at His exaltation. And, therefore, where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. And the only criterion or standard of this liberty is the Word of God in the Scriptures. It is the truth that makes us free, and that truth is revealed in the Bible. It is through the Holy Scriptures that the liberty wherewith Christ makes us; free is proclaimed to us, that we may know and believe and rejoice in that true freedom by faith. And it is through that Word that we may again have the true knowledge of God in the face of Christ Jesus, and that we may know what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God, to perform which from the heart is to walk in liberty. He, therefore, who is in Christ Jesus, and who lives by the indwelling Spirit of Christ from within, and according to the Word of God in the Scriptures,—he is truly free!
II. Religious liberty. What, then, is religious liberty in the positive sense of the word? You understand, that we may make a distinction between true Christian liberty, and what is known as religious freedom. The former concerns our true relation to God, that latter concerns, our position among men. The former no man or devil or power of darkness can ever take away from us. It is true, that because of that true spiritual liberty and our confession of it, they may deprive us of our civil liberty, may put us in prison or concentration camp: but even that does not affect the liberty which we have in Christ. But the latter concerns a state among mien: the right to exercise our Christian liberty in this world without interference on, the part of men. You will understand now, too, that what is known as religious freedom in our day is simply the freedom of indifference, of ir-religion. The right to serve God or net to serve Him, the right to make of God whatever we please, and to express about Him whatever we wish or think proper, the right to glorify Him or to deny that He exists,—all this is not true freedom of religion, but is rather the freedom of indifference in respect to religious matters. And the only religious liberty is the right to exercise the true Christian liberty, i.e. the right to know and confess and worship and serve God in Christ Jesus according to His Word, as He has revealed it unto us in the Scriptures, without being hindered or persecuted by men.
What does religious liberty imply? It signifies, first of all and above all: freedom of the Bible itself, as the sole authority in masters concerning faith and doctrine. If true Christian liberty is to live from the principle of the indwelling Spirit of Christ according to the will of God revealed in the Scriptures, it is evident that for the exercise of this freedom in the world it is paramount that the Scriptures remain our sole authority. Take the Bible away and you remove the very sphere of Christian liberty and render all religious freedom impossible, just as you make it impossible for a fish to live if you drain the pond in which he swims. By shackling the Bible you destroy religious freedom. Any human authority, whether it be of tradition, or reason, or of experience, that exalts itself above the Bible, is an enemy to all religious liberty in the positive sense of the word. And when they who thus exalt human authority above the Scriptures still speak of religious freedom, they do so ignorantly and falsely. And thus it is evident, too, that it is often the enemies of religious freedom that most loudly boast of it, and that the mockers of religious liberty often pretend to worship most ardently and devotedly at its shrine. Freedom of the Bible is the heart of religious freedom.
In close connection with this first element of religious freedom, must, be mentioned a second: freedom to interpret the Scriptures. It is based on the principle that the Scriptures are characterized by perspicuity, and that all that walk in the liberty wherewith Christ sets us free are able to read and understand it. And by liberty of interpretation is meant, first of all, that every believer must have free access to the Bible: he must have the right to possess a Bible of his own and to read it; and, secondly, that it must be explained in its own light. Exegesis must be free. It must not be shackled to an accepted code or system of doctrine. And every believer must have the right to interpret it without being hampered: or limited by human power or authority. It is true, that this may not be understood in the individualistic sense of the word. No one approaches the holy scriptures in separation from the church of the past and of the present. Also in the past the Holy Spirit led the church in all the truth. And it pleases God to preserve the truth in the line of generations. But even so it belongs to the exercise of Christian liberty, and therefore, to religious freedom that every believer has the right to interpret the Bible.
Then, too, it belongs to religious freedom that the church has the right freely arid publicly to preach the Word of God within its own domain, and without in all the world. For this is the calling wherewith she is called: the Church must preach the Word to all the world. She lives under a divine injunction, and it belongs to religious freedom that she be not hampered by human power or institutions to carry out this injunction. It also is the will of her Lord that she confess His name, and publicly call upon His name, and the free exercise of this calling in public worship belongs to religious freedom. And what is true of the church organically and institutionally, is also true of the individual believer: his Lord calls him to confess Him before men, and to walk in the midst of the world worthily of the calling wherewith he is called, not to become conformed to this world, but more and more to be transformed through the renewal of his mind, that he may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. And freedom, the right to confess the name of the Lord before men, and to walk according to His will belongs to religious freedom.
III. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. We all know that winged slogan. It presupposes that there are always forces at work in the world that are bent upon depriving us of what is known as political liberty, and purpose to enslave us to their own will. There are forces of greed, of oppression, of lust for power and aggrandizement, of proud ambition, that would impose their own will upon the will of all, and deprive the latter of their freedom even to exist. Hence, we must watch over the liberties we have obtained: eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. And this slogan may be applied very well to religious freedom in particular, and with special emphasis.
There are especially three forces in the world that may deprive us of this freedom of religion: the church, the state, and society. When I mention the church in this connection, I am referring to the institute of the church, with its officebearers and ministry of the Word. It may seem strange that an institution that is especially designed and; whose peculiar calling it is to be a pillar of the truth and to watch over the true liberty of the people of God, should become an agent of oppression and slavery. Yet, it is not difficult to understand why this should be true. They that have the calling to watch over and develop the truth are in the best position to corrupt it; they that are appointed to rule and have the oversight over the flock have the best opportunity to lord it over them; and if those that are in high places of the church are devoid of the love of Christ, they will use their high office for their own personal advantage, and the satisfaction of their carnal lusts. This is a matter of history. It was frequently the church that deprived the people of God of their religious freedom, and put upon them the yoke of human authority and precepts. I but have to remind you of the hierarchical yoke of the Roman Catholic Church, and the liberating movement of the Reformation. Nor was this evil completely stamped out by the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Always the same tendency reveals itself, and the same hierarchical power develops and attempts to enslave the church to the authority of men.
The State has the sword power. And by this power she has the calling to protect the good and punish evil doers in her own domain. This implies that in her own territory of power she must be the guardian of true religious freedom, and guarantee to the Church the right to worship according to the Word of God. But here, too, the very opposite is often witnessed. Frequently in history the State is not satisfied with her own, God-ordained power, in her own domain. She seeks to become the sole power in all domains of life. And in that) case she becomes especially jealous of the power and freedom of the Church, as well as of the individual believer. And she will make an attempt to subject the Church to her authority, and to make her subservient to her purposes. She will interfere with the internal affairs of the church, command her what to preach and what to pray for, and limit her right to worship. And the same authority she will attempt to exercise over the confession and walk of the believer. And because the government bears the sword, suffering and persecution must be the result for tall who insist that they must obey God rather than men. The Nazi State in Europe is a modern illustration of this abuse of the sword by the government, and of the destruction of religious freedom.
Bait also “society” may be an agent for the curtailment and destruction of religious liberty. For, even though “society” bae no power and authority, it has many means at its command to impose its will upon the individual. In society we have a name and a place; there we have our position and job; it is “society” that offers us opportunity to work and to live, that can bestow or withhold its favors. And especially in our day, with its many associations and unions, society is a mighty force. It can seriously limit the exercise of religious freedom by imposing upon the individual members certain requirements and conditions in order to enjoy the opportunity to make a decent living, or even to make a living at all. And if those requirements are such that they would bring the Christian believer in conflict with the Word of God, should he meet and fulfill them, organized society becomes an instrument for the destruction of religious liberty.
Hence, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. We must watch lest the church imposes upon us a new yoke of bondage by inventing doctrines and institutions of men. We must be on the alert, lest we yield to the demands of the state, whenever it would interfere with the exercise of our religious freedom. And we should always beware lest our position in society encroach upon the exercise of the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free!
IV. It is here that religious freedom comes with a special message to our young men and young women. For how shall we be vigilant, and where shall we place our sentinels? What, after all, is the indispensable condition for all watchfulness? The answer is: we must clearly understand and discern the truth of the Word of God, and that, too, in distinction from all error and false philosophy. We must be able to distinguish true Christian liberty and genuine religious freedom, from the false freedom that is proclaimed on every side in our day, that offers itself to us from pulpit and lecture room, by means of literature and radio, the novel and the stage. We must know, we must be thoroughly grounded and trained in the truth. It is the truth, the truth as it is in Christ Jesus, and as it is contained in the Scriptures, that makes us free, that brings to us the very atmosphere in which we must move in order to enjoy our freedom. How necessary, then, that we should know that truth, one and all! Only according as we know the truth, shall we be truly free, and be able to stand in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free. And only in as far as we enjoy the true liberty in Christ through the Word of God, shall we be able to discern the lie, and detect the error of false philosophy, whenever it would offer the bondage of darkness for the light of liberty. Only then, we shall be able, too, to resist with true spiritual weapons, the weapon of the Word of God, whenever Church or State or Society would encroach upon our freedom and though they may by sheer force and power curtail our religious freedom in the world, they will never be able to deprive us of the liberty which we have in Christ. We must be (thoroughly trained in the truth of the Word of God.
And youth is especially the time of training. This is true in the physical sense. How well this is realized today by our government! It was found that the average age of our men in the service is too high. The draft age must be lowered. Veteran soldiers are good enough, but you cannot train, new men for modern warfare, when they have passed a certain age limit. This is true mentally: a man must receive his education in his youth, not when he is become old. But the same holds spiritually. Also our religious training for the spiritual battle for religious freedom and Christian liberty in the midst of the world, we should receive in the days and years of our youth, while the evil days are mot, nor the years draw nigh in which we shall say: I have no pleasure in them, in youth the mind is plastic, receptive, alert, and we easily learn and understand. It is in youth that we become trained! to detect and to meet the enemies of religious and spiritual freedom. Youth is the time to become thoroughly acquainted with ‘and schooled in the principles of the truth as contained in the Word of God!
Hence, my subject appeals especially to our youth. It comes with the message that we should exert, all our power, and employ all our time, and use every opportunity, to acquire the knowledge of the Word of God. Yes, that means, of course, that we should make use of the means God offers us through the instituted church: the preaching of the Word, and catechetical instruction. Better training school for the battle for liberty there is none. It means, too, however, that we apply ourselves to personal reading and study of the Word of God. And it implies that we help one another, and meet unto mutual edification and upbuilding in the knowledge of the truth. It is especially for the latter purpose that our young men’s, young ladies’, and young peoples’ societies are organized. And unto mutual edification and training in the use of the Word of God they are excellently adapted. May they ever keep this purpose before them, and never degenerate into mere social clubs where the members seek an evening of pleasure and entertainment in the worldly sense of the word.
Of course, I am well aware that the mere study of Scripture cannot make us free, or cause us to preserve irreligious freedom; that is the work of the Spirit of Christ. A head full of knowledge, even though it is the knowledge of the Bible, does not liberate us: we must have grace. But given this grace of the Spirit of Christ, I am confident that they will most, enjoy and most consistently maintain their freedom that are most thoroughly schooled in the truth of the Word of God. Stand therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made you free!