On Christian Liberty

by John Calvin (abridged)1,2

1. Christian Liberty is an appendix to justification. But there are some who, under pretext of this liberty, cast off all obedience to God, and precipitate themselves into the most unbridled licentiousness [state of indulging in excessive freedom]. Others despise this liberty, supposing it to be subversive of all moderation and morality. In spite of such difficulties arising from this doctrine, we must exert to understand it, in order to obtain internal peace of mind.

2. Christian liberty consists of three parts. The first part is, when seeking justification before God, we should be delivered from the righteousness of the law. Dismissing all thought of our own works to attain justification, let us turn our eyes solely on Christ.

While we are delivered from the claims of the law, before the tribunal of God through justification in Christ; the law, however, remains useful to believers. It continues to instruct, exhort and stimulate us to duty and holiness.

3. On this point turns almost the whole argument of the Epistle of the Galatians. While Paul, in Galatians, is contending for liberty from the Mosaic ceremonies, his principal argument is, that no one can obtain righteousness before God by any works of the law.

4. The second part of Christian liberty, which is dependent on the first, is that we do not observe the law, as being under any legal obligation. Being liberated from the yoke of the law, we rather yield a voluntary obedience to the will of God.

5. They who are bound by the yoke of the law are like slaves. Being delivered from this yoke, we are like children who, with all our faulty works, are confident that our obedience will be accepted, by our indulgent Father. This is confirmed to us by the prophet: “I will spare them,” saith He, “as a man spares his own son that serves him” (Malachi 3:17 KJVER).

6. This is the reason why the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews refers to faith, and estimates only by faith, all the good works which are recorded of the holy patriarchs (Hebrews 11:2). On this liberty, Paul reasons, in Romans 6:14, that sin ought not to have dominion over us, because we are “not under the law, but under grace.” In this consolation furnished by their liberty from the law, their works, though imperfect, are accepted of the Father, because Christian liberty is to lead us to virtue and not back to sin.

7. The third part of Christian liberty teaches us, that we are not bound respecting external things. We have liberty to use some and liberty to omit others. The knowledge of this liberty is very necessary for us; for without it we shall have no tranquillity of conscience, nor will there be any end to superstitions.

8. “I know,” says Paul, “that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him that esteems any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean” (Romans 14:14 KJVER). In these words he makes all external things subject to our liberty, provided that our minds have regard to this liberty before God. But if any superstitious notion cause us to scruple [obstructing action], those things which are naturally pure become contaminated to us. Wherefore he subjoins, “Happy is he that condemns not himself in that thing which he allows. And he that doubts is damned if he eat, because he eats not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:22, 23 KJVER).

By this liberty, without any scruple [small weight] of conscience or perturbation of mind, we should devote the gifts of God to that use for which He has given us. This comprehends all ceremonies, the observation of which is left free, that the conscience may not be bound by any obligation to observe them.

9. Christian liberty is a spiritual thing in all its branches. Wherefore they are guilty of perverting its meaning, who either make it a pretext for their irregular appetites, or, in the exercise of it, totally disregard their weak brethren. The former of these sins is the more common in the present age. To be immersed in sensual delights, to inebriate the heart and mind with present pleasures, and perpetually to grasp at new ones—these things are very remote from a legitimate use of the Divine blessings. For God confers His blessings on them for the support of life, not for luxury. Here is a law on Christian liberty from the Apostle Paul: “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need” (Philippians 4:11, 12).

10. Many persons err likewise in this respect, that they make an imprudent use of their Christian liberty, which offends their weak brethren.

Christian liberty consists in abstinence as well as its use. Though it is right to assert our liberty before men, yet the greatest caution must be observed lest we offend the weak.

11. Offences, in this regard, may be divided into two species. The first species of offence affects none but the weak, and the second, the Pharisees. As to the weak, we have a genuine duty to discharge, that no man put a stumbling-block in a brother’s way (Romans 14:1, 13). As to an offence taken by the Pharisees, we learn from the Lord’s injunction, “Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind” (Matthew 15:14).

12. But the subject is still pending in uncertainty, unless we know whom we are to account weak, and whom we are to consider as Pharisee. Without which distinction, I see no use of liberty in the midst of offences, but such as must be attended with the greatest danger. But Paul appears to me to have very clearly decided, both by doctrine and examples, how far our liberty should be either moderated or asserted on the occurrence of offences. When he made Timothy his associate, he circumcised him (Acts 16:3); but could not be induced to circumcise Titus (Galatians 2:3). Here was a difference in his proceedings, but no change of mind or purpose. In the circumcision of Timothy, he says: “Though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all,” and says he, “Unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; . . . I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:19, 20, 22). Thus we have a proper moderation of liberty, if it may be indifferently restricted with any advantage. His reason for refraining from circumcising Titus was: “But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised: And that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage: To whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you” (Galatians 2:3-5). We also are under the necessity of vindicating our liberty, if it be endangered in weak consciences by the iniquitous [unjust] requisitions of false Apostles (1 Corinthians 10:23, 24). Nothing can be plainer than this rule, that our liberty should be used, if it conduces to our neighbour’s edification; but that if it be not beneficial to our neighbour, it should be abridged.

13. But whatever I have advanced respecting the avoidance of offences, I wish to be referred to indifferent and unimportant things. For necessary duties must not be omitted through fear of any offence. As our liberty should be subjected to love, so love itself ought to be subservient to the purity of faith. It is important to have love, but we must not offend God for the love of our neighbour.

14. Now, since the consciences of believers, being privileged with the liberty we have described, we conclude that they are exempt from all human authority. Paul hesitates not to assert, that Christ’s death is rendered vain, if we suffer our souls to be in subjection to men (Galatians 5:1, 4). In Galatians, Paul asserts that Christ is obscured or rather abolished, if we, who have found liberty in Him, should be insnared in the bonds of laws and ordinances put up at the pleasure of men (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:23).

15. To prevent anyone from falling into this error, let us consider, in the first place, that man is under two kinds of government—one spiritual, by which the conscience is formed in piety to the service of God; the other political, by which a man is instructed in the duties of humanity and civility. The former has its seat in the interior of the mind, whilst the latter only directs the external conduct. This distinction will prevent what the Gospel inculcates concerning spiritual liberty from being misapplied to political regulations. Of civil government and ecclesiastical laws, a full discussion of them will appear in the Fourth Book.

16. As works are in respect of men, so conscience is linked to God. A good conscience is no other than inward integrity of heart. In which sense Paul says, that “the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned” (1 Timothy 1:5). Afterwards, he shows how widely it differs from understanding, saying, that “some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck” (1 Timothy 1:19). These words indicate that it is a lively inclination to the service of God and a sincere pursuit of piety of life. It is that a law, which simply binds a man without relation to other men, is said to bind the conscience. Things in themselves indifferent are to be guided by other considerations.

It is our duty to abstain from them, if they tend to the least offence, yet without violating of liberty of conscience. Christian liberty—liberty of conscience.

References and Notes

  1. An Abridgement of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion: Book I-IV, Editor: Timothy Tow, Far Eastern Bible College Press, Singapore, pp. 287-291, 1997.
  2. My emphases added.  KJV used throughout except where indicated.

About John Gideon Hartnett

Dr John G. Hartnett is an Australian physicist and cosmologist, and a Christian with a biblical creationist worldview. He received a B.Sc. (Hons) and Ph.D. (with distinction) in Physics from The University of Western Australia, W.A., Australia. He was an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Outstanding Researcher Award (DORA) fellow at the University of Adelaide, with rank of Associate Professor. Now he is retired. He has published more than 200 papers in scientific journals, book chapters and conference proceedings.
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