Religious Liberty



     CHRIST came to set men free.  He said, “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me. . . to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.”  Isaiah 61:1.  Perfect liberty is found only in Christ.  God’s law is called the law of liberty.  The Inspired Word calls that law a hedge.  It marks out the unchangeable principles of right between man and God, and between man and man, which must be recognized, else liberty is impossible to intelligent beings.  All slavery, physical, moral, and intellectual, comes from breaking that law.  Liberty is found only in obedience to it.  Still there is a sort of slavery in the futile attempt to keep it in our own strength.  But Christ, through the new covenant, writes that law in the heart, so that we not only have power to keep it, but His will becomes ours, and with Christ we delight to do His will, because His law is in our hearts.  Here is perfect liberty.  The perfectly saved will be perfectly free.  Throughout eternity they will do just what they please, because they please to do just what makes liberty and joy possible.

     Now, as to the relation of the state to the conscience of man, Christ found men enslaved to kings and priests.  He taught that all men are brothers, sons of one Father, and therefore equal before the law – equal in civil rights.  Rulers were, therefore, only their servants, chosen under God to protect them in the enjoyment of their rights.  He freed us from the chains of priestcraft by teaching the absolute independence of the individual soul in matters religious, and by promising the spirit of truth to guide each one into all truth.

     It is true that all liberty comes through keeping God’s law, but God Himself, who wrote that law in the hearts of men in the beginning, who spoke it amid the thunders of Sinai, that all might hear and obey, who waits through the new covenant to rewrite it in every trusting soul – God Himself, who did all this, still made man as free to disobey these precepts as to obey them.  Why did God allow all this fearful iniquity that man might be made free?  To this there can be but one answer.  It was because He knew the worthlessness of all forced obedience, and that, therefore, the freedom to sin was absolutely necessary to the possibility of righteousness.

    After having made men free to sin, that the internal principle of love might work itself out in outward acts of righteousness unhindered by force – after having made men thus, has God given to any human authority the right to take away that freedom, and so to thwart His plans?  He has commanded all men to worship Him and obey His precepts, and this command applies to each individual personally; but has He ever commanded any man or set of men to compel others to worship Him, or to act even outwardly as if they worshiped Him?  To ask these questions is to answer them emphatically in the negative.

     The civil power is the power of arbitrary force to compel men who will not be righteous, to at least be civil, that men may live together in peace and quietness.  The true power of the church is the power of divine love manifest in the flesh, to win men to lead righteous lives.  The two powers are entirely separate, and Jesus so taught when He said, “Render to Caesar [the civil powers] the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Mark 12:17.

     When Peter, as a member of the Christian church, sought to defend the truth by the sword, Jesus, pointing to His Father as the Church’s only Source of power, said, “Put up again thy sword into his place:  for all they that take the sword [i.e., in religious matters] shall perish with the sword.”  Matthew 26:52.  The tares are to be allowed to grow with the wheat until the harvest.  Then God will send forth His angels to gather out the tares to burn them.  No human effort of arbitrary force can be used in rooting them out, lest in the act the wheat shall be rooted also.  See Matthew 13:24-30.

     Again Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world:  if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight.”  John 18:36.  Every civil law has the power of the sword back of it.  If it is right to make law, then it is right to enforce it.  In denying the church the power of the sword, Jesus therefore forbade the church to ask the state for laws enforcing beliefs and observances.  Paul understood this when he said, “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds.”  2 Corinthians 10:4.

     The early church, strong only in the power of God, triumphed grandly, even over the opposing forces of a false religion, upheld by the state.  Only when she allied herself with the state, seeking its aid, did she deny her God, lose her power, and darken the world into a night of a thousand years.  The present effort of the church to get the state to enforce religious observances of the Seventh Day Adventist faith is but a revival of the pagan and papal doctrine of force in religious things and as such it is antichristian. 


Adapted from:  American Sentinel, Jan. 17, 1895. (By G. E. Fifield)

Reprint of The Watchman, May 1, 1906 published in May, 1997 issue of Our Firm Foundation
(Mistakenly attributed to Ellen G. White)