This article was adapted from Russell Moore’s newsletter. Subscribe here.
Last week, an old video resurfaced on Twitter in which John MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in Los Angeles, announced that he did not support religious freedom. In the clip, MacArthur argued that support for religious freedom promotes idolatry and enables the kingdom of darkness – that “religious freedom is what sends people to hell”.
Some reports claim the quote is taken out of context, part of a larger argument. Even so, this kind of argument against religious freedom is familiar, usually in reference to someone else’s religion.
Years ago a pastor told me that religious freedom is essentially an affirmation of the words of the Serpent: “Ye shall surely not die” (Genesis 3:4). Granting religious freedom to false religions, according to this person, is equivalent to allowing the prophets of Baal to have their own place on Mount Carmel.
They are certainly statements of strong conviction, like propositions of biblical truth to which the only appropriate response should be an “Amen!” That is, until we actually listen to what is being said and hear it for what it is: theological liberalism.
Religious freedom, after all – whether expressed by Britain’s early Baptists, the persecuted Anabaptists of the Reformation era, or colonial American evangelists and their allies – was never a “You believe in Baal; I believe in god; What difference does it make?” kind of pluralism.
The issue of religious freedom is who should haveregulatory power over religion. If you think religion shouldn’t be regulated by the state, then you believe in religious freedom.
This is why denominations with “free” in their name (like Free Methodists, for example) – as well as those who believe in the need for personal repentance and faith – have been the most staunch supporters of freedom. religious for all.
These groups of people understand that the gospel according to Jesus is not an outward affirmation of a generic belief, of an as yet untransformed heart. It is not accepting Christianity as a ticket into society.
On the contrary, the gospel according to Jesus means that there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5). One can only stand before God in judgment by union with the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. And we can only enter into union with Christ by grace through faith (Romans 3:21-31).
This faith, as defined by Jesus and his apostles, does not come by proxy from any nation or leader, or even from any religious structure. If that were the case, John the Baptist would not have needed to preach repentance to Abraham’s descendants (Matthew 3:10). Moreover, the apostle Paul could find no fault in those who served the false gods chosen for them by their national or family traditions (Acts 17:22-31).
Instead, the gospel speaks to each person – one by one – as an individual who will stand before the judgment seat of Christ, who will give an account, and who is commanded to personally believe the gospel and repent of sin (Rom. 10:9–17).
As Jesus said at night to Nicodemus, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
And how does this new birth, this personal reception of Christ by faith, come about? This does not happen by changing a family crest or by a vote of the city council, but by the Spirit opening the heart – by an “open declaration of truth” commending itself to every conscience (2 Cor. 4: 2) .
Some of the old liberalisms and social gospels of all kinds preferred a different message – a gospel that changed appearances and did not require personal repentance or faith. Under such a gospel, if a country was “Christian”, then its citizens were also Christian. As long as its leader was “Christian”, then one could consider oneself part of the church. If one’s morality was properly regulated, whether by law or social custom, then one was a good Christian.
It’s fine, unless there is a hell. If Jesus is telling the truth that there is judgment coming, and no one comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6) – that “coming to him” means not just outward behavior but faith in him (6:40) – then no legal edict or social pressure could regenerate a human heart. Such things cannot make a person a true Christian. This is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Religious freedom is a restriction on the power of the state to mediate between God and humanity. It’s not an affirmation of idolatry, just like saying, “The government shouldn’t take your baby away from you and raise your children” is not an affirmation of bad parenting. Saying that parents should raise their children, instead of the government, doesn’t mean that everyone’s parenting is good. It simply means that, except in very serious and unique situations, parents should raise their children, rather than the state.
Religious freedom does not mean that everyone’s religion is true. All of this means that God judges the heart and that people must truly believe in their hearts that Jesus is Lord, instead of saying “Lord, Lord” just because they are required to do so by law.
If there is no religious freedom, then the ultimate questions should not be considered by persons, but only by majorities. If you are in 19th century Denmark, it is already decided for you that you are a Lutheran. If you are in the 20th century Soviet Union, it is already decided that you are a Marxist atheist. If you are in 21st century Saudi Arabia, you are a Muslim, no questions asked. This might be a way for the state to indoctrinate its citizens, but it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.
If religious freedom is bad, majorities not only decide religious affiliation, but they also dictate the scope of what is allowed to deviate from that religious affiliation.
Does anyone really believe that Los Angeles would embrace Calvinist dispensational Christianity? No one believes that, including, or perhaps especially, John MacArthur — who just spent nearly two years back and forth in court with the state of California over his church’s freedom to stand. reunite despite COVID-19 regulations, arguments he made in the name of religious freedom.
If California decided that the official state religion is Zen Buddhism, I’d bet Grace Community Church wouldn’t stop preaching the gospel. Neither should they. It is religious freedom. And I would bet further that if the State of California voted in its Legislature that every citizen of the State is a good Christian, Grace Community Church would not stop calling its neighbors to repent and believe, personally, in Christ. It is religious freedom.
We believe in religious freedom not because we believe in freedom on its own terms, but because we believe in the exclusiveness of Christ and the power of the gospel. We believe there is a name under heaven by which we must be saved – and that name is not “Caesar” or “Ayatollah” or “Assistant Secretary for Civic Affairs”.
We believe in religious freedom because we know what Jesus has given us to fight against the kingdom of darkness: the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. We believe in religious freedom because there is no civil substitute for the gospel of Christ.
We believe in religious freedom because we want to persuade our neighbors to be reconciled to God, not so they won’t be fined by the earthly government, but so they can find eternal life in the kingdom of God. heavens. So they don’t end up in hell.
Russell Moore directs the Public Theology Project at Christianity today.