Liberty of Conscience: The Core Principle of Protestantism

Liberty of Conscience: The Core Principle of Protestantism

by James Rafferty  |  April 9, 2014

The Origin of Protestantism 

“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

Thus ended Patrick Henry’s famous speech compelling Virginia to join the battle for independence from the British monarchy.

Nearly 250 years before, another group of men met to discuss what would become the new genesis of Protestantism. Again liberty from church-state monarchy was at stake. A deal offered the “favor” of liberty to those who then possessed it, but insisted that the teachings of the Reformation must go no further. Those still under church-state law, as well as the people of other ages (you and me in particular), would be allowed no such liberty. Nearly one half of the reformed princes present at the meeting refused the deal.

“Happily they looked at the principle on which this arrangement was based, and they acted in faith. What was that principle? It was the right of Rome to coerce conscience and forbid free inquiry. . . . Rather would they “sacrifice everything, even their states, their crowns, and their lives” (D’Aubigne, bk. 13, ch. 5; quoted in Ellen White, The Great Controversy, p. 200).

This was the “Patrick Henry” of the Reformation, if you will, but it was not a new and different voice. The same cry was heard from Peter and the apostles some 2,000 years ago when, filled with the Spirit of God, they too resisted the coercive dictates of civil and religious powers of their day, insisting, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

The apostles of Jesus were echoing the spirit of religious protest sounded some five hundred years before by Daniel’s three friends. Faced with the threat of death, they flatly refused to worship before the religious and civil statue of Babylon’s king:

“Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, answered and said to the king, O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up” (Daniel 3:16-18).

The heritage of Protestantism is a long one, spanning thousands of years, though the principles of civil and religious liberty were not named Protestant until the courageous stand made by those German princes at the Diet of Spires:

“One of the noblest testimonies ever uttered for the Reformation was the Protest offered by the Christian princes of Germany at the Diet of Spires in 1529. The courage, faith, and firmness of those men of God gained for succeeding ages liberty of thought and of conscience. Their protest gave to the reformed church the name of Protestant; its principles are ‘the very essence of Protestantism’” (D’Aubigne, bk. 13, ch. 6; quoted in Ellen White, The Great Controversy, p. 197).

“Protestant” as a definition of religious belief emerged from the protest of the princess. Religious liberty was its foundational principle. The true spirit of Protestantism accords liberty, both civil and religious, to all faiths and it is the reason many once saw the United States as “Protestant America.”

Protestant America 

During the establishment of America over 200 years ago, the Catholic faith was a minority religion. In some of the early states Catholics were even persecuted. This was a time when the character of the Jesuits, a special order of Catholics, was better known.

“I do not like the reappearance of the Jesuits,” John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson after Pius VII revived the order in 1814. “If ever there was a body of men who merited eternal damnation on earth and in hell, it is this society of Loyola’s. Nevertheless, we are compelled by our system of religious toleration to offer them an asylum” (Seattle Times, February 17, 1991).

The history of the struggle for liberty, both religious and civil, is built into the very fiber of America. It defines the very core of this great country.

“I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish—where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials,” -John F. Kennedy.

This is the America for which President Kennedy lived and died—an America with a government established upon the separation of church and state.

The founding fathers of America agreed. Some of them were influenced by the writings of John Locke who wrote on the principles of religious liberty as they relate to the Bible:

‘“The Church,’ he contended, ‘was a voluntary society, and no man was bound by nature to any particular sect, but every man joined himself voluntarily to that profession and worship which he thought acceptable to God.’ The Church had no right to avail itself of force or compulsion, because no such power was granted to it by its founder, and also because no man can be saved by any other religion except the one in which he believes freely. Therefore, Locke demanded absolute liberty, just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty; for all dissenters, not as a favor or an act of indulgence but as a right” (William Warren Sweet, Religion in Colonial America, Charles Scribner and Sons, N.Y. 1942; See also, John Locke, A Letter of Toleration).

John Wesley, the main founder of the Methodist Church, gave this insight to religious freedom:

“Condemn no man for not thinking as you think: Let every one enjoy the full and free liberty of thinking for himself: Let every man use his own judgment, since every man must give an account of himself to God. Abhor every approach, in any kind or degree, to the spirit of persecution. If you cannot reason or persuade a man into the truth, never attempt to force him into it.  If love will not compel him to come in, leave him to God, the Judge of all.”

What these men had personally experienced, seen and heard of the religious persecution in Europe and the early colonies of America caused them to write the religious clauses of the Constitution of the United States. George Washington, first president of the United States, believed that, “Any man, conducting himself as a good citizen and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience.”

James Madison, known as the father of the Federal Constitution wrote, “Religion is not in the purview of human government. Religion is essentially distinct from civil government, and exempt from its cognizance; a connection between them is injurious to both.”

And Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, said,

“Almighty God hath created the mind free; all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy Author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in His almighty power to do.”

Benjamin Franklin wrote,

“When a Religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and, when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support, so that its Professors are oblig’d to call for the help of the Civil Power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one” (The Founders’ Constitution, Volume 4, Article 6, Clause 3, Document 5, The University of Chicago Press, 1987).

These are principles of divine truth, brought together and expressed in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Today the ring of freedom still stirs the inmost soul of the American people. We were created to be free. While political corruption and corporate greed slowly dismantle our nation, this one principle holds together the land of the free, home of the brave. It strikes a moral chord that reminds us of the image in which we were created. Our hearts still rise with a sense of our innate free nobility when we hear the song,

My country, ’tis of thee,

Sweet land of liberty,

Of thee I sing;

Land where my fathers died,

Land of the pilgrims’ pride,

From ev’ry mountainside

Let freedom ring!

Prophetic Protestantism

This liberty is a significant part of the prophetic picture of Bible prophecy. The principles of liberty are represented in Revelation chapter 13 and verse 11:

“And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb, and he spake as a dragon.”

Civil and religious freedom are here symbolically pictured as two lamb-like horns. These symbols are not difficult to identify. The “lamb” in this verse is a reference to Jesus Christ. More specifically, to Him being slain on Calvary’s cross to redeem men who were sold into sin-slavery and could not redeem themselves (Revelation 5:1-9). Rather than wipe out sinners by sheer force, God chose to be lifted up on a cross to draw all to Himself by the power of His love. The death of the cross was God’s way of saying, All people are free to choose whom they will serve—Me, or themselves.

America’s history embodies the lamb-like principles of liberty so clearly demonstrated in the life and death of Christ. It is a nation that has continued the journey of liberty’s forefathers to stand for both religious and civil freedom. And the final prophetic forecast, “he spake as a dragon,” is right on target, so much so that its founding fathers would turn with embarrassment from the picture of America’s present state of affairs.

What does it mean to speak as a dragon? In Revelation chapter 12, Satan is unmasked as the “dragon.” To speak like him would be to embody his principles of war, accusation, anger, coercion, force, deception, and lies (Revelation 12:7-11, 17; 13:12-17). Basically, the way America is increasingly conducting itself. The kingdom or nation rising out of the earth speaks as a dragon, revealing the very character of Satan rather than the principles of the lamb, coercing the moral conscience of the entire world.

Personal Protestantism

And yet, according to the gospel of Jesus Christ we can still be free. Those principles can still reign in our hearts individually. The subjection to the dragon prophesied in Revelation begins in individuals and not with corporations or governments. It begins with us, you and me today, now. As you read these words, they will call you to freedom, to the liberty that you have in Christ Jesus, the liberty Jesus lived and died to protect and honor even if such liberty leads you to choose against Him. Even the state church of certain segments of the Reformation era, such as John Calvin’s Geneva, did not like the idea of a liberty that allowed us to choose against the Liberator, Jesus Christ, but that is the true spirit of liberty that is foundational to the love of God.

Protestantism at its very best represents the liberty we are to have over the very worst kind of bondage and oppression—the slavery of the mind to the flesh. The apostle Paul stated this idea well when he said:

“I PROTEST by your rejoicing which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily” (1 Corinthians 15:31).

Paul walked in a liberty that began with a personal daily death to his own flesh or carnal nature. Even as a Roman prisoner Paul was still free. This is the liberty Jesus promised us when He said:

“If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” (Jesus, John 8:36).

Martin Luther also spoke to this same biblical truth when he said:

“I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals. I have within me the great pope, Self.”

Literal slavery is imposed upon millions of human beings by those who are themselves spiritual slaves to their avarice and lust. The callous greed of the natural human heart is the catalyst of the “beast.” The beast within forms the “beast” without. Think about it. The bondage we all experience to one degree or another forms the basis for the atrocities that support the literal slave trade. Sexual immorally and materialism are simply forms of bondage. Bondage to the flesh inhibits our ability to love selflessly in a genuine, other-centered way—the way that Jesus loves.

“Whosoever will list himself under the banner of Christ, must, in the first place and above all things, make war upon his own lusts and vices. It is in vain for any man to unsurp the name of Christian, without holiness of life, purity of manners, benignity and meekness of spirit” (John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration).

We can do something to be free. We have a part to play. We have choices. Jesus died to preserve our choice. America’s founding fathers lived and died to give the world this freedom. Lives are being affected by the choices we are making in the privacy of our own home. Slavery is sustained by us. We are free to choose to say “no thank you” to slavery. God wants to set each of us free first—you and me. And once we are free, we are called to set others free by the same power of love that has freed us.

Refuse the “protest” against your own flesh and you refuse the liberty of Christ. This personal choice places you in bondage to the desires of this world. The prince of this world, styled “the dragon” in Revelation 13, will work through two primary powers to coerce all who have rejected the liberty Christ gives from the bondage of the flesh. The world will form one final movement to wipe out religious freedom. The habits long established, the surrender of liberty in exchange for self-indulgence, will produce fruit in the inability to do what is right when the test comes. Bondage to the world will serve as a means of forcing all to worship the “beast” rather than face economic sanctions and the threat of death. The “beast” is the composite of self, the uniting of all the selfishness that has refused absolute surrender to the self-liberating power of God.

Spiritual Protestantism

On the other hand there are men, women and children today who are still protesting against individual self and its beastly composite. Many of them may know nothing of Protestantism or its fine history, but they hear the voice of conscience, the voice of God. They follow the Spirit of another world than this. They accept the Spirit of liberty over the passions of the flesh and they choose “to live simply that others may simply live.”

“Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17).

This Spirit of liberty has been leading the human heart to freedom for thousands of years. It is leading us to freedom today. Can you hear it now? Shut off the TV, the internet, the radio, the phone. Get to a quiet place and listen. If you are willing to be set free you will begin to hear a “strong” voice as from “heaven” growing to “great power” and crying “mightily” (Revelation 18:1-4). It is calling us—every person who has ears to hear—out of the political, religious, economic system-code named “Babylon” (Revelation 18). The call echos the “glory” of God—the fullest revelation of selfless love ever witnessed on Planet Earth—Calvary. This love restores to you and me the choice to be free from bondage of Babylon—from the leaders and merchants of the world who will one day weep in agony as the machinery of human bondage comes crashing to the ground (Revelation 18).

And the same cry that echoes down the corridor of time, “give me liberty or give me death,” will be heard again. The words of Bible prophecy indicate that the Lamb will have a people to whom liberty is more precious than life itself:

“And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death” (Revelation 12:11).

The “him” of this verse is the dragon, Satan, the devil, the author of selfishness. He will be overcome by people who have opened their hearts fully to the other-centered, liberating love of the Lamb.

People like you and me.

James Rafferty Co-Director
Light Bearers
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  • Claudine

    Thank you James anyone reading this and cannot see that we are liveing in the last days and that Jesus is comeing soon. Must be blind and dief. The pope is calling for all to be one. Gods children will need the Holy Spirit and we have to pray as never before. God bless the work you guys are doing. I will be praying for you.Claudine

  • Thank you. To the point. May Christ`s unselfish love so fill us with compassion and love for others as enable us to renounce selfish lusts and the pride of this life. May we cry and sigh for a new heart, a new spirit, to see and choose the law of liberty from self and sin.