Calvin, Institutes, Vol.3, Part 20
(... continued from part 19)
Chapter 19. 
19. Of Christian Liberty 
    The three divisions of this chapter are, - I. Necessity of the 
doctrine of Christian Liberty, sec. 1. The principal parts of this 
liberty explained, sec. 2-8. II. The nature and efficacy of this 
liberty against the Epicureans and others who take no account 
whatever of the weak, sec. 9 and 10. III. Of offense given and 
received. A lengthened and not unnecessary discussion of this 
subject, sec. 11-16. 
1. Connection of this chapter with the previous one on 
    Justification. A true knowledge of Christian liberty useful and 
    necessary. 1. It purifies the conscience. 2. It checks 
    licentiousness. 3. It maintains the merits of Christ, the truth 
    of the Gospel, and the peace of the soul. 
2. This liberty consists of three parts. First, Believers renouncing 
    the righteousness of the law, look only to Christ. Objection. 
    Answer, distinguishing between Legal and Evangelical 
3. This first part clearly established by the whole Epistle to the 
4. The second part of Christian liberty, viz., that the conscience, 
    freed from the yoke of the law, voluntarily obeys the will of 
    God. This cannot be done so long as we are under the law. 
5. When freed from the rigorous exactions of the law, we can 
    cheerfully and with much alacrity answer the call of God. 
6. Proof of this second part from an Apostle. The end of this 
7. Third part of liberty, viz., the free rise of things indifferent. 
    The knowledge of this part necessary to remove despair and 
    superstition. Superstition described. 
8. Proof of this third part from the Epistle to the Romans. Those 
    who observe it not only use evasion. 1. Despisers of God. 2. 
    The desperate. 3. The ungrateful. The end and scope of this 
    third part. 
9. Second part of the chapter, showing the nature and efficacy of 
    Christian liberty, in opposition to the Epicureans. Their 
    character described. Pretext and allegation. Use of things 
    indifferent. Abuse detected. Mode of correcting it. 
10. This liberty maintained in opposition to those who pay no regard 
    to the weak. Error of this class of men refuted. A most 
    pernicious error. Objection. Reply. 
11. Application of the doctrine of Christian liberty to the subject 
    of offenses. These of two kinds. Offense given. Offense 
    received. Of offense given, a subject comprehended by few. Of 
    Pharisaical offense, or offense received. 
12. Who are to be regarded as weak and Pharisaical. Proved by 
    examples and the doctrine of Paul. The just moderation of 
    Christian liberty. necessity of vindicating it. No regard to be 
    paid to hypocrites. Duty of edifying our weak neighbors. 
18. Application of the doctrine to things indifferent. Things 
    necessary not to be omitted from any fear of offense. 
14. Refutation of errors in regard to Christian liberty. The 
    consciences of the godly not to be fettered by human traditions 
    in matters of indifference. 
15. Distinction to be made between Spiritual and Civil government. 
    These must not be confounded. How far conscience can be bound 
    by human constitutions. Definition of conscience. Definition 
    explained by passages from the Apostolic writings. 
16. The relation which conscience bears to external obedience; 
    first, in things good and evil; secondly, in things 
    1. We are now to treat of Christian Liberty, the explanation 
of which certainly ought not to be omitted by any one proposing to 
give a compendious summary of Gospel doctrine. For it is a matter of 
primary necessity, one without the knowledge of which the conscience 
can scarcely attempt any thing without hesitation, in many must 
demur and fluctuate, and in all proceed with fickleness and 
trepidation. In particular, it forms a proper appendix to 
Justification, and is of no little service in understanding its 
force. Nay, those who seriously fear God will hence perceive the 
incomparable advantages of a doctrine which wicked scoffers are 
constantly assailing with their jibes; the intoxication of mind 
under which they labour leaving their petulance without restraint. 
This, therefore, seems the proper place for considering the subject. 
Moreover, though it has already been occasionally adverted to, there 
was an advantage in deferring the fuller consideration of it till 
now, for the moment any mention is made of Christian liberty lust 
begins to boil, or insane commotions arise, if a speedy restraint is 
not laid on those licentious spirits by whom the best things are 
perverted into the worst. For they either, under pretext of this 
liberty, shake off all obedience to God, and break out into 
unbridled licentiousness, or they feel indignant, thinking that all 
choice, order, and restraint, are abolished. What can we do when 
thus encompassed with straits? Are we to bid adieu to Christian 
liberty, in order that we may cut off all opportunity for such 
perilous consequences? But, as we have said, if the subject be not 
understood, neither Christ, nor the truth of the Gospel, nor the 
inward peace of the soul, is properly known. Our endeavor must 
rather be, while not suppressing this very necessary part of 
doctrine, to obviate the absurd objections to which it usually gives 
    2. Christian liberty seems to me to consist of three parts. 
First, the consciences of believers, while seeking the assurance of 
their justification before God, must rise above the law, and think 
no more of obtaining justification by it. For while the law, as has 
already been demonstrated, (supra, chap. 17, sec. 1,) leaves not one 
man righteous, we are either excluded from all hope of 
justification, or we must be loosed from the law, and so loosed as 
that no account at all shall be taken of works. For he who imagines 
that in order to obtain justification he must bring any degree of 
works whatever, cannot fix any mode or limit, but makes himself 
debtor to the whole law. Therefore, laying aside all mention of the 
law, and all idea of works, we must in the matter of justification 
have recourse to the mercy of God only; turning away our regard from 
ourselves, we must look only to Christ. For the question is, not how 
we may be righteous, but how, though unworthy and unrighteous, we 
may be regarded as righteous. If consciences would obtain any 
assurance of this, they must give no place to the law. Still it 
cannot be rightly inferred from this that believers have no need of 
the law. It ceases not to teach, exhort, and urge them to good, 
although it is not recognized by their consciences before the 
judgment-seat of God. The two things are very different, and should 
be well and carefully distinguished. The whole lives of Christians 
ought to be a kind of aspiration after piety, seeing they are called 
unto holiness, (Eph. 1: 4; 1 Thess. 4: 5.) The office of the law is 
to excite them to the study of purity and holiness, by reminding 
them of their duty. For when the conscience feels anxious as to how 
it may have the favor of God, as to the answer it could give, and 
the confidence it would feel, if brought to his judgment-seat, in 
such a case the requirements of the law are not to be brought 
forward, but Christ, who surpasses all the perfection of the law, is 
alone to be held forth for righteousness. 
    3. On this almost the whole subject of the Epistle to the 
Galatians hinges; for it can be proved from express passages that 
those are absurd interpreters who teach that Paul there contends 
only for freedom from ceremonies. Of such passages are the 
following: "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being 
made a curse for us." "Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty 
wherewith Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with 
the yoke of bondage. Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be 
circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to 
every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole 
law. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are 
justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace," (Gal. 3: 13; 5: 1- 
4.) These words certainly refer to something of a higher order than 
freedom from ceremonies. I confess, indeed, that Paul there treats 
of ceremonies, because he was contending with false apostles, who 
were plotting, to bring back into the Christian Church those ancient 
shadows of the law which were abolished by the advent of Christ. 
But, in discussing this question, it was necessary to introduce 
higher matters, on which the whole controversy turns. First, because 
the brightness of the Gospel was obscured by those Jewish shadows, 
he shows that in Christ we have a full manifestation of all those 
things which were typified by Mosaic ceremonies. Secondly, as those 
impostors instilled into the people the most pernicious opinion, 
that this obedience was sufficient to merit the grace of God, he 
insists very strongly that believers shall not imagine that they can 
obtain justification before God by any works, far less by those 
paltry observances. At the same time, he shows that by the cross of 
Christ they are free from the condemnation of the law, to which 
otherwise all men are exposed, so that in Christ alone they can rest 
in full security. This argument is pertinent to the present subject, 
(Gal. 4: 5, 21, &c.) Lastly, he asserts the right of believers to 
liberty of conscience, a liberty which may not be restrained without 
    4. Another point which depends on the former is, that 
consciences obey the law, not as if compelled by legal necessity; 
but being free from the yoke of the law itself, voluntarily obey the 
will of God. Being constantly in terror so long as they are under 
the dominion of the law, they are never disposed promptly to obey 
God, unless they have previously obtained this liberty. Our meaning 
shall be explained more briefly and clearly by an example. The 
command of the law is, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all 
thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might," (Deut. 
6: 5.) To accomplish this, the soul must previously be divested of 
every other thought and feeling, the heart purified from all its 
desires, all its powers collected and united on this one object. 
Those who, in comparison of others, have made much progress in the 
way of the Lord, are still very far from this goal. For although 
they love God in their mind, and with a sincere affection of heart, 
yet both are still in a great measure occupied with the lusts of the 
flesh, by which they are retarded and prevented from proceeding with 
quickened pace towards God. They indeed make many efforts, but the 
flesh partly enfeebles their strength, and partly binds them to 
itself. What can they do while they thus feel that there is nothing 
of which they are less capable than to fulfill the law? They wish, 
aspire, endeavor; but do nothing with the requisite perfection. If 
they look to the law, they see that every work which they attempt or 
design is accursed. Nor can any one deceive himself by inferring 
that the work is not altogether bad, merely because it is imperfect, 
and, therefore, that any good which is in it is still accepted of 
God. For the law demanding perfect love condemns all imperfection, 
unless its rigor is mitigated. Let any man therefore consider his 
work which he wishes to be thought partly good, and he will find 
that it is a transgression of the law by the very circumstance of 
its being imperfect. 
    5. See how our works lie under the curse of the law if they are 
tested by the standard of the law. But how can unhappy souls set 
themselves with alacrity to a work from which they cannot hope to 
gain any thing in return but cursing? On the other hand, if freed 
from this severe exaction, or rather from the whole rigor of the 
law, they hear themselves invited by God with paternal levity, they 
will cheerfully and alertly obey the call, and follow his guidance. 
In one word, those who are bound by the yoke of the law are like 
servants who have certain tasks daily assigned them by their 
masters. Such servants think that nought has been done; and they 
dare not come into the presence of their masters until the exact 
amount of labour has been performed. But sons who are treated in a 
more candid and liberal manner by their parents, hesitate not to 
offer them works that are only begun or half finished, or even with 
something faulty in them, trusting that their obedience and 
readiness of mind will be accepted, although the performance be less 
exact than was wished. Such should be our feelings, as we certainly 
trust that our most indulgent Parent will approve our services, 
however small they may be, and however rude and imperfect. Thus He 
declares to us by the prophet, "I will spare them as a man spareth 
his own son that serveth him," (Gal. 3: 17;) where the word spare 
evidently means indulgence, or connivance at faults, while at the 
same time service is remembered. This confidence is necessary in no 
slight degree, since without it every thing should be attempted in 
vain; for God does not regard any sock of ours as done to himself, 
unless truly done from a desire to serve him. But how can this be 
amidst these terrors, while we doubt whether God is offended or 
served by our work? 
    6. This is the reason why the author of the Epistle to the 
Hebrews ascribes to faith all the good works which the holy 
patriarchs are said to have performed, and estimates them merely by 
faith, (Heb. 11: 2.) In regard to this liberty there is a remarkable 
passage in the Epistle to the Romans, where Paul argues, "Sin shall 
not have dominion over you; for ye are not under the law, but under 
grace," (Rom. 6: 14.) For after he had exhorted believers, "Let not 
sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in 
the lusts thereof: Neither yield ye your members as instruments of 
unrighteousness unto sin; but yield yourselves unto God, as those 
that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of 
righteousness unto God;" they might have objected that they still 
bore about with them a body full of lust, that sin still dwelt in 
them. He therefore comforts them by adding, that they are freed from 
the law; as if he had said, Although you feel that sin is not yet 
extinguished, and that righteousness does not plainly live in you, 
you have no cause for fear and dejection, as if God were always 
offended because of the remains of sin, since by grace you are freed 
from the law, and your works are not tried by its standard. Let 
those, however who infer that they may sin because they are not 
under the law, understand that they have no right to this liberty, 
the end of which is to encourage us in well-doing. 
    7. The third part of this liberty is that we are not bound 
before God to any observance of external things which are in 
themselves indifferent, ("adiafora") but that we are now at full 
liberty either to use or omit them. The knowledge of this liberty is 
very necessary to us; where it is wanting our consciences will have 
no rest, there will be no end of superstition. In the present day 
many think us absurd in raising a question as to the free eating of 
flesh, the free use of dress and holidays, and similar frivolous 
trifles, as they think them; but they are of more importance than is 
commonly supposed. For when once the conscience is entangled in the 
net, it enters a long and inextricable labyrinth, from which it is 
afterwards most difficult to escape. When a man begins to doubt 
whether it is lawful for him to use linen for sheets, shirts, 
napkins, and handkerchiefs, he will not long be secure as to hemp, 
and will at last have doubts as to tow; for he will revolve in his 
mind whether he cannot sup without napkins, or dispense with 
handkerchiefs. Should he deem a daintier food unlawful, he will 
afterwards feel uneasy for using loafbread and common eatables, 
because he will think that his body might possibly be supported on a 
still meaner food. If he hesitates as to a more genial wine, he will 
scarcely drink the worst with a good conscience; at last he will not 
dare to touch water if more than usually sweet and pure. In fine, he 
will come to this, that he will deem it criminal to trample on a 
straw lying in his way. For it is no trivial dispute that is here 
commenced, the point in debate being, whether the use of this thing 
or that is in accordance with the divine will, which ought to take 
precedence of all our acts and counsels. Here some must by despair 
be hurried into an abyss, while others, despising God and casting 
off his fear, will not be able to make a way for themselves without 
ruin. When men are involved in such doubts whatever be the direction 
in which they turn, every thing they see must offend their 
    8. "I know," says Paul, "that there is nothing unclean of 
itself," (by unclean meaning unholy;) "but to him that esteemeth any 
thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean," (Rom. 14: 14.) By these 
words he makes all external things subject to our liberty, provided 
the nature of that liberty approves itself to our minds as before 
God. But if any superstitious idea suggests scruples, those things 
which in their own nature were pure are to us contaminated. 
Wherefore the apostle adds, "Happy is he that condemneth not himself 
in that which he alloweth. And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, 
because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is 
sin," (Rom. 14: 22, 23.) When men, amid such difficulties, proceed 
with greater confidence, securely doing whatever pleases them, do 
they not in so far revolt from God? Those who are thoroughly 
impressed with some fear of God, if forced to do many things 
repugnant to their consciences are discouraged and filled with 
dread. All such persons receive none of the gifts of God with 
thanksgiving, by which alone Paul declares that all things are 
sanctified for our use, (1 Tim. 4: 5.) By thanksgiving I understand 
that which proceeds from a mind recognizing the kindness and 
goodness of God in his gifts. For many, indeed, understand that the 
blessings which they enjoy are the gifts of God, and praise God in 
their words; but not being persuaded shalt these have been given to 
them, how can they give thanks to God as the giver? In one word, we 
see whither this liberty tends viz., that we are to use the gifts of 
God without any scruple of conscience, without any perturbation of 
mind, for the purpose for which he gave them: in this way our souls 
may both have peace with him, and recognize his liberality towards 
us. For here are comprehended all ceremonies of free observance, so 
that while our consciences are not to be laid under the necessity of 
observing them, we are also to remember that, by the kindness of 
God, the use of them is made subservient to edification. 
    9. It is, however, to be carefully observed, that Christian 
liberty is in all its parts a spiritual matter, the whole force of 
which consists in giving peace to trembling consciences, whether 
they are anxious and disquieted as to the forgiveness of sins, or as 
to whether their imperfect works, polluted by the infirmities of the 
flesh, are pleasing to God, or are perplexed as to the use of things 
indifferent. It is, therefore, perversely interpreted by those who 
use it as a cloak for their lusts, that they may licentiously abuse 
the good gifts of God, or who think there is no liberty unless it is 
used in the presence of men, and, accordingly, in using it pay no 
regard to their weak brethren. Under this head, the sins of the 
present age are more numerous. For there is scarcely any one whose 
means allow him to live sumptuously, who does not delight in 
feasting, and dress, and the luxurious grandeur of his house, who 
wishes not to surpass his neighbor in every kind of delicacy, and 
does not plume himself amazingly on his splendor. And all these 
things are defended under the pretext of Christian liberty. They say 
they are things indifferent: I admit it, provided they are used 
indifferently. But when they are too eagerly longed for, when they 
are proudly boasted of, when they are indulged in luxurious 
profusion, things which otherwise were in themselves lawful are 
certainly defiled by these vices. Paul makes an admirable 
distinction in regard to things indifferent: "Unto the pure all 
things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is 
nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled" (Tit. 
1: 15.) For why is a woe pronounced upon the rich who have received 
their consolation? (Luke 6: 24,) who are full, who laugh now, who 
"lie upon beds of ivory and stretch themselves upon their couches;" 
"join house to house," and "lay field to field;" "and the harp and 
the viol, the tablet and pipe, and wine, are in their feasts," (Amos 
6: 6; Isa. 5: 8, 10.) Certainly ivory and gold, and riches, are the 
good creatures of God, permitted, nay destined, by divine providence 
for the use of man; nor was it ever forbidden to laugh, or to be 
full, or to add new to old and hereditary possessions, or to be 
delighted with music, or to drink wine. This is true, but when the 
means are supplied to roll and wallow in luxury, to intoxicate the 
mind and soul with present and be always hunting after new 
pleasures, is very far from a legitimate use of the gifts of God. 
Let them, therefore, suppress immoderate desire, immoderate 
profusion, vanity, and arrogance, that they may use the gifts of God 
purely with a pure conscience. When their mind is brought to this 
state of soberness, they will be able to regulate the legitimate 
use. On the other hand, when this moderation is wanting, even 
plebeian and ordinary delicacies are excessive. For it is a true 
saying, that a haughty mind often dwells in a coarse and homely 
garb, while true humility lurks under fine linen and purple. Let 
every one then live in his own station, poorly or moderately, or in 
splendor; but let all remember that the nourishment which God gives 
is for life, not luxury, and let them regard it as the law of 
Christian liberty, to learn with Paul in whatever state they are, 
"therewith to be content," to know "both how to be abased," and "how 
to abound," "to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to 
suffer need," (Phil. 4: 11.) 
    10. Very many also err in this: as if their liberty were not 
safe and entire, without having men to witness it, they use it 
indiscriminately and imprudently, and in this way often give offense 
to weak brethren. You may see some in the present day who cannot 
think they possess their liberty unless they come into possession of 
it by eating flesh on Friday. Their eating I blame not, but this 
false notion must be driven from their minds: for they ought to 
think that their liberty gains nothing new by the sight of men, but 
is to be enjoyed before God, and consists as much in abstaining as 
in using. If they understand that it is of no consequence in the 
sight of God whether they eat flesh or eggs, whether they are 
clothed in red or in black, this is amply sufficient. The conscience 
to which the benefit of this liberty was due is loosed. Therefore, 
though they should afterwards, during their whole life, abstain from 
flesh, and constantly wear one color, they are not less free. Nay, 
just because they are free, they abstain with a free conscience. But 
they err most egregiously in paying no regard to the infirmity of 
their brethren, with which it becomes us to bear, so as not rashly 
to give them offense. But it is sometimes also of consequence that 
we should assert our liberty before men. This I admit: yet must we 
use great caution in the mode, lest we should cast off the care of 
the weak whom God has specially committed to us. 
    11. I will here make some observations on offenses, what 
distinctions are to be made between them, what kind are to be 
avoided and what disregarded. This will afterwards enable us to 
determine what scope there is for our liberty among men. We are 
pleased with the common division into offense given and offense 
taken, since it has the plain sanction of Scripture, and not 
improperly expresses what is meant. If from unseasonable levity or 
wantonness, or rashness, you do any thing out of order or not in its 
own place, by which the weak or unskillful are offended, it may be 
said that offense has been given by you, since the ground of offense 
is owing to your fault. And in general, offense is said to be given 
in any matter where the person from whom it has proceeded is in 
fault. Offense is said to be taken when a thing otherwise done, not 
wickedly or unseasonably, is made an occasion of offense from 
malevolence or some sinister feeling. For here offense was not 
given, but sinister interpreters ceaselessly take offense. By the 
former kind, the weak only, by the latter, the ill-tempered and 
Pharisaical are offended. Wherefore, we shall call the one the 
offense of the weak, the other the offense of Pharisees, and we will 
so temper the use of our liberty as to make it yield to the 
ignorance of weak brethren, but not to the austerity of Pharisees. 
What is due to infirmity is fully shown by Paul in many passages. 
"Him that is weak in the faith receive ye." Again, "Let us not judge 
one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a 
stumbling-block, or an occasion to fall, in his brother's way;" and 
many others to the same effect in the same place, to which, instead 
of quoting them here, we refer the reader. The sum is, "We then that 
are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to 
please ourselves. Let every one of us please his neighbor for his 
good to edification." elsewhere he says, "Take heed lest by any 
means this liberty of yours become a stumbling-block to them that 
are weak." Again "Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that eat, 
asking no question for conscience sake." "Conscience, I say, not 
thine own, but of the other." Finally, "Give none offense, neither 
to the Jews nor to the Gentiles nor to the Church of God." Also in 
another passage, "Brethren, ye have been called into liberty, only 
use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one 
another." Thus, indeed, it is: our liberty was not given us against 
our weak neighbors, whom charity enjoins us to serve in all things, 
but rather that, having peace with God in our minds, we should live 
peaceably among men. What value is to be set upon the offense of the 
Pharisees we learn from the words of our Lord, in which he says, 
"Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind," (Matth. 15: 
14.) The disciples had intimated that the Pharisees were offended at 
his words. He answers that they are to be let alone that their 
offense is not to be regarded. 
    12. The matter still remains uncertain, unless we understand 
who are the weak and who the Pharisees: for if this distinction is 
destroyed, I see not how, in regard to offenses, any liberty at all 
would remain without being constantly in the greatest danger. But 
Paul seems to me to have marked out most clearly, as well by example 
as by doctrine, how far our liberty, in the case of offense, is to 
be modified or maintained. When he adopts Timothy as his companion, 
he circumcises him: nothing can induce him to circumcise Titus, 
(Acts 16: 3; Gal. 2: 3.) The acts are different, but there is no 
difference in the purpose or intention; in circumcising Timothy, as 
he was free from all men, he made himself the servant of all: "Unto 
the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that 
are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are 
under the law; to them that are without law, as without law, (being 
not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might 
gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak that I 
might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might 
by all means save some" (1 Cor. 9: 20-22.) We have here the proper 
modification of liberty, when in things indifferent it can be 
restrained with some advantage. What he had in view in firmly 
resisting the circumcision of Titus, he himself testifies when he 
thus writes: "But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was 
compelled to be circumcised: and that because of false brethren 
unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty 
which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into 
bondage: to whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour, 
that the truth of the gospel might continue with you," (Gal. 2: 
3-5.) We here see the necessity of vindicating our liberty when, by 
the unjust exactions of false apostles, it is brought into danger 
with weak consciences. In all cases we must study charity, and look 
to the edification of our neighbor. "All things are lawful for me," 
says he, "but all things are not expedient; all things are lawful 
for me, but all things edify not. Let no man seek his own, but every 
man another's wealth," (1 Cor. 10: 23, 24.) There is nothing plainer 
than this rule, that we are to use our liberty if it tends to the 
edification of our neighbor, but if inexpedient for our neighbor, we 
are to abstain from it. There are some who pretend to imitate this 
prudence of Paul by abstinence from liberty, while there is nothing 
for which they less employ it than for purposes of charity. 
Consulting their own ease, they would have all mention of liberty 
buried, though it is not less for the interest of our neighbor to 
use liberty for their good and edification, than to modify it 
occasionally for their advantage. It is the part of a pious man to 
think, that the free power conceded to him in external things is to 
make him the readier in all offices of charity. 
    13. Whatever I have said about avoiding offenses, I wish to be 
referred to things indifferent. Things which are necessary to be 
done cannot be omitted from any fear of offense. For as our liberty 
is to be made subservient to charity, so charity must in its turn be 
subordinate to purity of faith. Here, too, regard must be had to 
charity, but it must go as far as the altar; that is, we must not 
offend God for the sake of our neighbor. We approve not of the 
intemperance of those who do every thing tumultuously, and would 
rather burst through every restraint at once than proceed step by 
step. But neither are those to be listened to who, while they take 
the lead in a thousand forms of impiety, pretend that they act thus 
to avoid giving offense to their neighbor, as if in the meantime 
they did not train the consciences of their neighbors to evil, 
especially when they always stick in the same mire without any hope 
of escape. When a neighbor is to be instructed, whether by doctrine 
or by example, then smooth-tongued men say that he is to be fed with 
milk, while they are instilling into him the worst and most 
pernicious opinions. Paul says to the Corinthians, "I have fed you 
with milk, and not with meat," (1 Cor. 3: 2;) but had there then 
been a Popish mass among them, would he have sacrificed as one of 
the modes of giving them milk? By no means: milk is not poison. It 
is false then to say they nourish those whom, under a semblance of 
soothing they cruelly murder. But granting that such dissimulation 
may be used for a time, how long are they to make their pupils drink 
that kind of milk? If they never grow up so as to be able to bear at 
least some gentle food, it is certain that they have never been 
reared on milk. Two reasons prevent me from now entering farther 
into contest with these people, first, their follies are scarcely 
worthy of refutation, seeing all men of sense must nauseate them; 
and, secondly, having already amply refuted them in special 
treatises, I am unwilling to do it over again. Let my readers only 
bear in mind, first, that whatever be the offenses by which Satan 
and the world attempt to lead us away from the law of God, we must, 
nevertheless, strenuously proceed in the course which he prescribes; 
and, secondly, that whatever dangers impend, we are not at liberty 
to deviate one nail's breadth from the command of God, that on no 
pretext is it lawful to attempt any thing but what he permits. 
    14. Since by means of this privilege of liberty which we have 
described, believers have derived authority from Christ not to 
entangle themselves by the observance of things in which he wished 
them to be free, we conclude that their consciences are exempted 
from all human authority. For it were unbecoming that the gratitude 
due to Christ for his liberal gift should perish or that the 
consciences of believers should derive no benefit from it. We must 
not regard it as a trivial matter when we see how much it cost our 
Savior, being purchased not with silver or gold, but with his own 
blood, (1 Pet. 1: 18, 19;) so that Paul hesitates not to say that 
Christ has died in vain, if we place our souls under subjection to 
men, (Gal. 5: 1, 4; 1 Cor. 7: 23.) Several chapters of the Epistle 
to the Galatians are wholly occupied with showing that Christ is 
obscured, or rather extinguished to us, unless our consciences 
maintain their liberty; from which they have certainly fallen, if 
they can be bound with the chains of laws and constitutions at the 
pleasure of men. But as the knowledge of this subject is of the 
greatest importance, so it demands a longer and clearer exposition. 
For the moment the abolition of human constitutions is mentioned, 
the greatest disturbances are excited, partly by the seditious, and 
partly by calumniators, as if obedience of every kind were at the 
same time abolished and overthrown. 
    15. Therefore, lest this prove a stumbling-block to any, let us 
observe that in man government is twofold: the one spiritual, by 
which the conscience is trained to piety and divine worship; the 
other civil, by which the individual is instructed in those duties 
which, as men and citizens, we are bold to performs (see Book 4, 
chap. 10, sec. 3-6.) To these two forms are commonly given the not 
inappropriate names of spiritual and temporal jurisdiction, 
intimating that the former species has reference to the life of the 
soul, while the latter relates to matters of the present life, not 
only to food and clothing, but to the enacting of laws which require 
a man to live among his fellows purely honorably, and modestly. The 
former has its seat within the soul, the latter only regulates the 
external conduct. We may call the one the spiritual, the other the 
civil kingdom. Now, these two, as we have divided them, are always 
to be viewed apart from each other. When the one is considered, we 
should call off our minds, and not allow them to think of the other. 
For there exists in man a kind of two worlds, over which different 
kings and different laws can preside. By attending to this 
distinction, we will not erroneously transfer the doctrine of the 
gospel concerning spiritual liberty to civil order, as if in regard 
to external government Christians were less subject to human laws, 
because their consciences are unbound before God, as if they were 
exempted from all carnal service, because in regard to the Spirit 
they are free. Again because even in those constitutions which seem 
to relate to the spiritual kingdom, there may be some delusion, it 
is necessary to distinguish between those which are to be held 
legitimate as being agreeable to the Word of God, and those, on the 
other hand, which ought to have no place among the pious. We shall 
elsewhere have an opportunity of speaking of civil government, (see 
Book 4, chap. 20.) For the present, also, I defer speaking of 
ecclesiastical laws, because that subject will be more fully 
discussed in the Fourth Book when we come to treat of the Power of 
the Church. We would thus conclude the present discussion. The 
question, as I have said, though not very obscure, or perplexing in 
itself, occasions difficulty to many, because they do not 
distinguish with sufficient accuracy between what is called the 
external forum, and the forum of conscience. What increases the 
difficulty is, that Paul commands us to obey the magistrate, "not 
only for wrath, but also for conscience sake," (Rom. 13: 1, 5.) 
Whence it follows that civil laws also bind the conscience. Were 
this so, then what we said a little ago, and are still to say of 
spiritual governments would fall. To solve this difficulty, the 
first thing of importance is to understand what is meant by 
conscience. The definition must be sought in the etymology of the 
word. For as men, when they apprehend the knowledge of things by the 
mind and intellects are said to know, and hence arises the term 
knowledge or science, so when they have a sense of the divine 
justice added as a witness which allows them not to conceal their 
sins, but drags them forward as culprits to the bar of God, that 
sense is called conscience. For it stands as it were between God and 
man, not suffering man to suppress what he knows in himself; but 
following him on even to conviction. It is this that Paul means when 
he says, "Their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts 
the meanwhile accusing, or else excusing one another," (Rom. 2: 15.) 
Simple knowledge may exist in man, as it were shut up; therefore 
this sense, which sists man before the bar of God, is set over him 
as a kind of sentinel to observe and spy out all his secrets, that 
nothing may remain buried in darkness. Hence the ancient proverb, 
Conscience is a thousand witnesses. For the same reason Peter also 
employs the expression, "the answer of a good conscience," (1 Pet. 
3: 21,) for tranquillity of mind; when persuaded of the grace of 
Christ, we boldly present ourselves before God. And the author of 
the Epistle to the Hebrews says, that we have "no more conscience of 
sins," (Heb. 10: 2,) that we are held as freed or acquitted, so that 
sin no longer accuses us. 
    16. Wherefore, as works have respect to men, so conscience 
bears reference to God, a good conscience being nothing else than 
inward integrity of heart. In this sense Paul says that "the end of 
the commandment is charity, out of a pure heart, and of a good 
consciences and of faith unfeigned" (1 Tim. 1: 5.) He afterwards, in 
the same chapter, shows how much it differs from intellect when he 
speaks of "holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having 
put away, have made shipwreck," (1 Tim. 1: 19.) For by these words 
he intimates, that it is a lively inclination to serve God, a 
sincere desire to live in piety and holiness. Sometimes, indeed, it 
is even extended to men, as when Paul testifies, "Herein do I 
exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offense toward 
God, and toward men," (Acts 24: 16.) He speaks thus, because the 
fruits of a good conscience go forth and reach even to men. But, as 
I have said, properly speaking, it refers to God only. Hence a law 
is said to bind the conscience, because it simply binds the 
individual, without looking at men, or taking any account of them. 
For example, God not only commands us to keep our mind chaste and 
pure from lust, but prohibits all external lasciviousness or 
obscenity of language. My conscience is subjected to the observance 
of this law, though there were not another man in the world, and he 
who violates it sins not only by setting a bad example to his 
brethren, but stands convicted in his conscience before God. The 
same rule does not hold in things indifferent. We ought to abstain 
from every thing that produces offense, but with a free conscience. 
Thus Paul, speaking of meat consecrated to idols, says, "If any man 
say unto you, This is offered in sacrifice unto idols, eat not for 
his sake that showed it, and for conscience sake:" "Conscience, I 
say, not thine own, but of the other," (1 Cor. 10: 28, 29.) A 
believer, after being previously admonished, would sin were he still 
to eat meat so offered. But though abstinence, on his part, is 
necessary, in respect of a brother, as it is prescribed by God, 
still he ceases not to retain liberty of conscience. We see how the 
law, while binding the external act, leaves the conscience unbound. 

Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 3, Part 20

(continued in part 21...)

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