Liberty of Conscience

The following is a guest post by ECS senior Kara Rothenberger.

Since its founding, America has been recognized and shaped by its freedom, and its continual increase of liberty in all areas of life, whether for good or ill. However, many Americans fail to recognize how much they owe to the gospel, and specifically to Calvinistic thinking, for the freedoms they enjoy today. Hundreds of years ago (and in some parts of the world today) men were killed for holding differing beliefs, entire countries were split because of opposing practices, and religious freedom was simply unheard of. Then, after the Reformation, Calvin’s teachings brought about a strange development in many countries. Religions of all sorts were flourishing, and this flourishing directly points back to Calvin’s teaching of the liberty of conscience and Christ’s Lordship.

During the Reformation, many Reformers questioned how much authority is actually given to the Church. Should there be a head of the earthly Church? Do Church leaders get to decide on and enforce specific practices and doctrines for all Christians? In his Lectures on Calvinism, Abraham Kuyper writes, “With Rome the system of persecution issued from the identification of the visible with the invisible Church, and from this dangerous line Calvin departed” (103). Catholicism enforced the idea that truth must be imposed by force onto those who are not wise enough to find it by themselves. Calvinism holds that other religions and practices can flourish because Christ has orchestrated the whole world to glorify Him through their own particular purposes, “which enables every man to serve God according to his own conviction and the dictates of his own heart” (109). This is not to say that all religions are correct in how they worship, but it does mean that religions can flourish because of this liberty of conscience, this freedom of religion, this presupposition that Christ’s perfect predestination fertilizes the free soil we stand on. America’s assumption that neither the government nor the Church has the authority to impose truth by force comes from Calvin’s teaching on Christ’s Lordship over all realms. If Christ is the sovereign Lord over all, not only is it wrong to impose truth by force, but all religions are fulfilling the purposes He designed for them.

This culture recoils at the idea of attributing their freedom to the gospel, claiming that freedom comes from taking down authorities and moral standards, not embracing them. The freedom of the French Revolution, for example, dethroned God and placed man’s autonomy above all else, but this freedom was really a removal of God-given rights, including the liberty of conscience. No man was free to speak his mind, unless he was ready to face execution. It is because of Christ’s sovereignty, because of His perfect institution of authorities in governments and the Church, that we can enjoy freedom of religion, and flourishing of religion. Catholicism took away Christ’s role as the enforcer of Truth, and autonomy took away man’s role as the worshipper. However, presupposing Christ’s sovereignty over all means that some are called to worship Him, and others are called to reject Him, that He can make “one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use” (Romans 9:21).

Living in light of Christ’s Lordship does not just affect religion, but it gives a foundation for all other areas of life. If Christ is Lord, all lawful occupations are good and noble, whether done by His people or not. How we fellowship with family and friends, what we do for pleasure, all of it matters, and all of it points directly to His control over all. Not only religion, but relationships, jobs, governments, and everything else can flourish because of this fertilizer that gives life and meaning to everything.