A. A. Hodge On Christian Liberty

These Sections teach the following propositions:

1st. God alone is Lord of the human conscience, which is responsible only to his authority.

2d. God has authoritatively addressed the human conscience only in his law, the only perfect revelation of which in this world is the inspired Scriptures. Hence God himself has set the human conscience free from all obligation to believe or obey any such doctrines or commandments of men as are either contrary to or aside from the teachings of that Word.

3d. Hence to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments as a matter of conscience, is to be guilty of the sin of betraying the liberty of conscience and its loyalty to its only Lord; and to require such an obedience of others is to be guilty of the sin of usurping the prerogative of God and attempting to destroy the most precious liberties of men.

4th. This Christian liberty is not, however, absolute. It has its distinct end and limits. Its end is that every person, without hindrance of his fellow-men, should have opportunity to serve God according to his will. The limits of this liberty are of two kinds: (a.) The authority of God, the Lord of conscience. (b.) The equal liberties and rights of our fellow-men, with whom we dwell in organized societies.

5th. Since God has established both the Church and the State, obedience to the legitimate authorities of either, acting within their rightful sphere, is an essential part of obedience to God.

6th. The Church has the right from God of exercising its discipline upon any who maintain or practice opinions or actions plainly contrary to the light of nature, the doctrines of the Scripture or the peace and welfare of the Christian community.

1st. That, in the highest and only absolute sense, God alone is Lord of the human conscience, has never been denied. The real question raised by Romanists, and those in general who have claimed the authority of binding and loosing the consciences of their fellow-men, relates to the standard which God has given us of his will, and the means he has chosen to enforce it. The Romanists maintain that the true standard and organ of the will of God in the world is the infallible inspired Church, or body of bishops ordained regularly in a direct line from the apostles and in communion with the See of Rome. They hold that this Church has power to define doctrines and enact laws in God’s name, binding the consciences of men; and that it possesses, in the power of the keys, the right, in execution of these laws, to absolve or condemn in God’s name, to bind or loose the subject and open or shut the kingdom of heaven, and to impose ecclesiastical penalties. By far the larger part of what the Church of Rome actually enforces in the way of faith and practice is derived from ecclesiastical tradition and evidently perverted interpretations of Scripture.

The Erastian State churches of Germany and England have often attempted to enforce outward uniformity in profession and worship, in spite of the conscientious scruples of multitudes of their best citizens, on the plea that the right and responsibility of regulating the ecclesiastical as well as the civil interests of the nation devolve upon the civil magistrate.

In opposition to all this, Protestants insist—

2d. That God has given only one, and that a perfect, rule of faith and practice in spiritual matters in the inspired Scriptures, and that he has hence set free the human conscience from all obligation to believe or obey any such doctrines or commandments of men as are contrary to or aside from the teachings of that Word.

A. A. Hodge, on the Westminster Confession of Faith ch. 20 in A Commentary on the Confession of Faith (Philadelphia, 1920), 358–60.

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2 comments

  1. Dr. Clark,
    Thank you for these distinctions.

    “2d. That God has given only one, and that a perfect, rule of faith and practice in spiritual matters in the inspired Scriptures, and that he has hence set free the human conscience from all obligation to believe or obey any such doctrines or commandments of men as are contrary to or aside from the teachings of that Word.”

    As I study the Gospel of John with a new Christian, who was ‘indoctrinated’ in the Romanist worldview, many stange ideas are being uncovered and laid bare. One: she actually believed Jesus was the second Roman Catholic; Mary was the first. Two: Scripture surprised her: Jesus’ physical heritage is Hebrew. Into this fallen world that uncompromisingly undermines His Church, we bring distinctions established in His Word and the doctrines of the harmonized confessions that display Jesus Is Lord on His terms in His Word. Most effective environments the Church and our lives.

    Now I must begin reading A.A. Hodge. My reading list gets longer every week!

  2. The two kingdom doctrine is necessary to protect the freedom of the Christian to act according to his conscience, in obedience to God’s Word. The history of Erastian State Churches of England and Germany is the chilling example of what happens when the two kingdoms are united and confused. It makes the ruler of the civil realm the Lord of the churches! It displaces obedience and loyalty to God with obedience and loyalty to the civil authority, a human authority, corrupted by the fall, who will act according to it’s nature, and exploit such absolute power for its own purposes.

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