Part 8 - God's Law, Civil Law & Christian Liberty
Each of the above areas is dealt with by separate chapters in the confession, but as they are interlinked, I thought we’d look at them together.
The confession identifies three strands of God’s law.
The moral law it describes as having begun as a covenant of works with Adam, being later codified and clarified through Moses. The ten commandments are a summary of this law, the first four particularly dealing with how we relate to God and the later 6 showing how this in turn should affect our relationships with other people. The moral law laid out this behaviour not just because God wanted it, but because living in this way is what is best for humanity as a whole as well as for individuals.
Ceremonial law relates to the instructions particularly pertaining to worship and religion which God gave to Israel in the Old Testament. The purpose of these laws was twofold. Partly they point towards and prefigure Christ and his work and partly they were intended to assist with the keeping of the moral law.
Judicial law related to the practices God handed down as civic laws for the nation and state of Israel under his rule.
The confession teaches that the ceremonial law was displaced and overturned by the coming of Christ and is no longer binding on his people. Likewise the end of the “body politic” which was the Biblical nation of Israel brought about the expiry of the judicial law which bound them. The moral law, however, continues to be in force, including the moral aspects underpinning the old ceremonial and judicial laws. This moral law is binding on all mankind, where they accept God as law giver or not.
With regard to temporal civic authorities, the Confession reminds us that they are ordained by God and that his people are obligated to respect them and to obey their lawful commands. This includes the paying of “tributes or other dues” (taxes). The faith, or lack of faith, of a politician or civic authority does not negate this and allow us to disrespect or refuse to obey them within their legitimate sphere. Their sphere, however, does not extend to the administration of Sacraments or the preaching of the word. It is legitimate for Christians to run for office and take a full role in the political and civic processes of the countries they live in.
The concept of Christian Liberty means that we are no longer under judgement of God’s law and no longer face the penalty for breaking it. It does not, however, change the fact that living according to God’s moral law is both good for us and pleasing to God and we should therefore still strive to obey it, with God’s help.
Liberty of conscience means that we should not be compelled to act in a way which we believe is contrary to God’s law (note, this does not apply to things which are simply a personal preference).
However, any attempt to use the excuse of liberty to justify disobeying a “lawful power … civil or ecclesiastical” is, in fact and offence against God. Whilst it is correct to place God’s law above mans, it is not correct to refuse to comply with civil law because we don’t like it. Unless it directly contradicts God’s law, rather than just being inconvenient or uncomfortable for us, than we are still bound to obey it. We should therefore be extremely careful before invoking the defence of liberty of conscience when disobeying or disregarding church or state authorities.