The "Magna Carta" of Christian Liberty

John R. Muether
Monday, November 1st 2010
Nov/Dec 2010
The Christian…finds in the Bible the very Word of God. Let it not be said that dependence upon a book is a dead or an artificial thing. The Reformation of the sixteenth century was founded upon the authority of the Bible, yet it set the world aflame. Dependence upon a word of man would be slavish, but dependence upon God's Word is life. Dark and gloomy would be the world, if we were left to our own devices, and had no blessed Word of God. The Bible to the Christian is not a burdensome law, but the very Magna Charta [sic] of Christian liberty.

J. Gresham Machen wrote these words at the conclusion of his chapter on the Bible in his classic book Christianity and Liberalism (first published in 1923), composed in the thick of his battle with modernism in the Presbyterian Church. (1) Historic Protestantism, he explained, was based on the conviction that God has spoken in his Word, that this Word was infallible and its authority final. Liberalism, on the other hand, submitted to a different master. For the modernist, "the only authority can be individual experience; truth can only be that which 'helps' the individual man." (2)

Machen understood that when liberals in the church proceeded to do that which was right in their own eyes, the result was not liberty but tyranny and ultimately the death of a church. As he was later tried in the courts of the church for his refusal to demonstrate blind loyalty to the church bureaucracy, he explained that authority to which he was to submit was given from above and thus limited by Scripture.

The Word of God is our only rule of faith and practice. This is the doctrine of sola scriptura: we must not contradict Scripture, and we must not add to Scripture. When the church would bind the conscience, the Christian can appeal to the Word of God and find liberty. A church without this guarantee will be at the mercy of ambitious bureaucrats or repressive moralists, and it binds the conscience by the word of man.

"Good and Necessary Consequence"

The principle that Machen was honoring found its clearest expression in the Westminster Confession of Faith: "The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men" (1.6).

The Westminster Confession explains that there are two ways in which God reveals himself in Scripture: explicit truth ("which is expressly set down in Scripture") and implicit truth (which "by good and necessary consequence can be deduced from Scripture"). Together these truths constitute the whole counsel of God, and both are equally obliging on the church. Herman Bavinck explains: "[T]hat which can be deduced from Scripture by legitimate inference is as binding as that which is expressly stated in it." (3)

It is important to underscore that "good and necessary consequence" is not the voice of human wisdom. Because it is reason that submits to the rule of Christ, it is the voice of Scripture itself. As James Bannerman, the nineteenth-century Scottish Presbyterian, explained, good consequences "must be truly contained in the inspired statements from which they profess to be taken." Necessary consequences must be "unavoidably forced upon the mind, upon an honest and intelligent application of it to the Scripture page." (4)

In a helpful essay, C. J. Williams points out that this phrase can be juxtaposed with the wording of the Westminster Larger Catechism (Q/A 105), which warns against "bold and curious searching into [God's] secrets." Where there is not good and necessary consequence, there is exegetical recklessness. This is "presumptuous theological creativity." The deductive reasoning that the confession commends is no license for "an uncharted world of interpretive possibilities," writes Williams. "Good and necessary consequences will propound specific truths, not unveil mysterious layers of meaning in Scripture." (5) The confession goes on (in 1.6) to explain that the Holy Spirit guides the church in identifying these consequences: "the inward illumination of the Spirit of God [is] necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word." Bavinck writes, "This is how the church acts every minute of the day in the ministry of the Word, in the practice of life, in the development of its doctrine. It never stops with the letter but under the guidance of the Holy Spirit deduces from the data of Scripture the inferences and applications that make possible and foster its life and development." (6)

The "good and necessary" principle can be demonstrated by way of illustration. We do not have a positive command or historical example to administer the Lord's Supper to women. But the practice of admitting women to the Table is a clear argument from inference that the church has never questioned. Similarly, there is no explicit statement in the New Testament that the Sabbath day has been changed from the last to the first day of the week. But the New Testament practice of meeting on the first day and John's reference to the Lord's Day (Rev. 1:10) establish the warrant, by good and necessary consequence, of recognizing the Lord's Day as the Christian Sabbath.

On the other hand, there may appear to be, in a very literal reading, an explicit command from Christ for his disciples to practice foot washing (John 13:14). However, this was a common practice in first-century Palestine, and Christ cites it in order to instruct Christians to perform humble service for one another, not to bind the church in a particular liturgical practice. As an ordinance for the church, foot washing fails to meet the burden of good and necessary consequence.

Good and necessary consequence, then, is a principle that safeguards the consistent application of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. The church has no right to impose on its members any teaching, commandment, or ordinance that is contrary to or cannot be deduced from Scripture.

The Battle for Christian Liberty

The temptation to impose non-biblical demands derived from "bold and curious" reasoning is not limited to theological liberals. Some conservative churches have constructed a "catalog of sins," highlighting particular "bar-room vices" that comprise a legalistic picture of the Christian life. As soon as Machen and his associates founded the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a minority within the new church pressed for a declaration against the use of alcohol. The majority in the church, while opposed to intemperance, countered that loyalty to Christ forbade their adopting rules that went beyond the Word of God.

Of course, none of the advocates of abstinence were consciously challenging the authority of the Bible as the church's standard of conduct. But the effect of their crusade was to deny the sufficiency of Scripture and ultimately its authority as well. If it is denied that the Bible provides principles that serve as infallible guides to the Christian in all matters of conduct, then additional authorities must enter the picture. The addition of such man-made rules to the Scripture is as harmful as any subtraction from God's Word.

The principle of Christian liberty is not a popular cause in many circles today. A refusal to condemn alcohol may leave the Christian vulnerable to the impression of being opposed to personal holiness and in favor of sinful license. On a social level, consider the zeal of some churches to take a stand against a social evil by organizing boycotts or political campaigns for particular laws or candidates for office. The church that safeguards liberty of the Christian in this way is not likely to join such social bandwagons. It may be accused of being cowardly in the face of apparent grave threats to the moral fabric of the nation.

Speaking in the early years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, shortly after some prominent fundamentalists had left the church over this issue, R. B. Kuiper of Westminster Seminary conceded the unpopularity of the church's stand: "The mere mention of Christian liberty causes some of you to worry. You see smoke and smell liquor, and you wonder whether I may not be about to utter some awful indiscretion. Forget it. Christian liberty is something big. It is truly broad."

Kuiper's point is that in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and other Reformed churches, there has been a recognition of the rights and duties of Christians to follow the dictates of their own consciences in matters where the Bible has not pronounced judgment.

Who Binds the Conscience?

The "something big" to which Kuiper referred comes into view as the Westminster Confession goes on to describe in 20.2: "God alone is Lord of the Conscience and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to His word, or beside it in matters of faith and worship." This is often misunderstood by Christians who assume that because God is Lord of the conscience, the church cannot bind consciences. But the church has real God-given authority, and the elders of the church, in the execution of their rule, inevitably and unavoidably bind the consciences of their members. The question, rather, becomes: On what basis is the conscience bound? Is it by the Word of God or by the word of man?

In Christ, Christians are free from all the condemnation of the law, but this liberty never descends into license. Christians are enabled to live for that great end for which they were created: the glory of God. We pursue that aim according to God's own will revealed in the Bible. That standard, given by inspiration of God, is absolute and final. It was designed so that "the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16).

In this context, we see that Christian liberty is not an end to itself. Rather, Christian liberty serves the Lordship of Christ, who alone is Lord of the conscience. Christian liberty limits the church to ministering and declaring only the Word of God and not human opinion.

Nowhere do we find greater violations of this principle than with innovations to public worship. There are many Reformed Christians who regard the regulative principle as a narrow-minded rule that robs worshipers of the freedom that God would have them express in worship. This argument completely misses the genius of Christian liberty. Imagine a worship service that entails something without biblical warrant, such as a personal testimony or a dramatic skit. What recourse does a worshiper have who finds that objectionable? By not participating, one sins by violating the divine command to worship with God's assembled people. By joining in, one sins by violating one's conscience. The only way the church can worship God and protect liberty of conscience is by observing the regulative principle of worship. The freedom of the Christian is found in serving one Lord and Master, Jesus Christ.

So what is at stake in the principle of Christian liberty is something far greater than a craving for single malt scotch or the inclination to vote Democrat. It is liberating the believer from arbitrary human rules and the church from a false agenda that distracts it from its calling. Should the minister contend that America is a Christian nation that will receive the blessing from God in return for civic righteousness? Does he promise health and wealth to the believer who follows the Bible's formula for success? We may be quick to dismiss those claims when they come from a crass televangelist, but they come in more subtle forms in churches that follow "brash and curious" principles rather than good and necessary consequence.

Relevance, Real and Imagined

Still the objection is raised: If the church is silenced on speaking to the "real world," hasn't it lost its relevance? The assumption that lurks behind that question is that the world sets the standard for relevance. The gospel is not obliged to meet the world's cravings; it is designed to challenge them. The message of sin and salvation is irrelevant only to a church that has abandoned its calling in pursuit of worldliness. The church must draw a distinction between what the world considers relevant and what is truly relevant. The Bible fulfills needs in which the world is not interested.

All Scripture is profitable, but only when it is put to profitable purposes. In a remarkable essay that anticipates this modern obsession, Paul Woolley wrote on the "Relevancy of Scripture" for a symposium by the faculty of Westminster Seminary in 1946. "It is of utmost importance," he wrote, "that when Scripture is read its purpose should be kept in mind and no attempt made to draw final conclusions about which it does not speak."

Robert Letham writes, "There are vast fields of knowledge that the Scripture does not address. Scripture is complete and final only for the purpose for which it was given." (7) The Bible will not tell us how to invest our money. It will not direct us to which political candidate we should lend our support. "In these matters," Letham notes, "the 'traditions of men' may have their place."

When the church expresses itself on matters where the Bible is silent, it listens to the voice of a stranger and it puts the Bible to unprofitable use. The Bible is commended more for its therapeutic value (ways to improve my marriage or find a better job) than its redemptive benefits (how I am convicted of my sin and misery and find the salvation offered through Christ). As David Wells has observed, many churches today profess the sufficiency of Scripture while their practice belies that profession. "For evangelicals," he writes, "this has taken the form of using polling, marketing, and business know-how to adapt Christian faith to generational niches. It has also involved recasting Christian faith in therapeutic terms for those who have left a moral world and inhabit a psychological world." (8) In these ways we may think we have made the Bible "relevant," but we have only denied its sufficiency. In the desperate pursuit of the "the very latest thing," the culture sets the agenda for the church and the principle of sola scriptura has morphed into sola cultura.

The illusion is that a healthy and powerful church emerges from these activitiesÂ?one equipped with a panoply of attractive programs and services. The reality is an impotent church that has no comfort and hope to offer to a lost and dying world.


Machen understood that it was a great sin for the church to bind the consciences of its members by any doctrine or practice not certainly imposed by God and revealed in his Word. At the same time, it is a disloyalty to God to yield to any such imposition and to accept as a matter truly binding the conscience anything not authoritatively taught and imposed in the Scriptures.

As I am writing this, on the eve of the Fourth of July, fireworks are sounding throughout my neighborhood. Political liberty, Americans rightly note, is a very precious thing. Christian liberty is even more precious. It is concerned about a far greater freedom: our liberation from the estate of sin and misery and being delivered into an estate of salvation, where fellowship with God through Christ is the ultimate source of life, liberty, and happiness.

It is a sad testimony to the misplaced priorities of the church today when celebrations of political freedom incite it to jettison Christian liberty. Whenever churches subject their church members to unbiblical political and social agendas, churches establish a rival authority to the Lordship of Christ. This rival authority leads to the very bondage that prompted Protestants to leave the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century and to separate from modernists in the twentieth century.

"Don't tread on me" was the rallying cry of American colonies in their fight against political tyranny. How much more ought that to be the cry of the church, equipped with the Word of God, in its warfare against spiritual oppression? When the Bible is put to the proper use of making God's people "wise unto salvation," then it truly becomes the "Magna Carta" of Christian liberty.

1 [ Back ] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009), 78-79.
2 [ Back ] Machen, 78.
3 [ Back ] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt; trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 4.526.
4 [ Back ] James Bannerman, Inspiration: The Infallible Truth and Divine Authority of the Holy Scriptures (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1865), 587.
5 [ Back ] C. J. Williams, "Good and Necessary Consequence in the Westminster Confession" in The Faith Once Delivered: Essays in Honor of Dr. Wayne R. Spear, ed. Anthony T. Selvaggio (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007), 180, 185.
6 [ Back ] Bavinck, 4.526.
7 [ Back ] Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009), 138.
8 [ Back ] David F. Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 227.
Monday, November 1st 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology