Freedom Often Forgotten; The Baptist Distinctive of Religious Liberty

These Truths Alone; 500 Years of Reformation  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  36:18
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Soul Liberty

Sometime around 1616 Thomas Helwys died in Newgate Prison London.
Which would have been an entirely inconsequential event in world history, except that he was the first to make an appeal in the English language for Universal Freedom of Religion and was the founder of the first Baptist Church in England.
Thomas Helwys was one of a number of influential figures in the early 1600 who were part of a movement which wanted to reform the Church of England.
A number of these people went on to become the Puritans who sailed to the New World on the Mayflower and laid the foundations of the USA.
It was a dangerous time as the King and church officials saw uniformity of belief and practice as essential to stability in the Kingdom.
Their desire was to maintain power and avoid the sort of conflict that had plagued Europe and England because of different religious ideas.
Anything which was not approved was viewed as heresy and in 1607 the authorities decided to clamp down on the dissenters.
Shortly after Thomas Helwys and about 40 others fled England and settled in Amsterdam where they eventually founded the first Baptist Church under the leadership of John Smyth who later left the group.
Assuming their safety, Helwys allowed his family to remain in England; Unfortunately, his wife was soon arrested and, after refusing to take the oath in court, she was imprisoned.
Although we have no idea what happened to her it is likely that she was banished after three months in prison.
Protestant dissenters in England still faced being burnt at the stake for 'Heresy'.
On 11 April 1611 Anabaptist Edward Wightman became the last religious martyr to be burnt.
Thomas Helwys became increasingly uncomfortable with his move to escape persecution so in 1612 he lead his congregation to return to England where he founded the first Baptist congregation one year after King James had published the Authorized Bible, which became known as the King James Bible.
The King who sponsored the most famous and influential Bible translation in history was presented with a copy of Thomas Helwys book “The Mystery of Iniquity”.
In the cover of this book was a personal hand written appeal to the King that a man’s religion was a matter between him and God, it was no business of the King.
The Kings response was to lock Thomas up in prison and throw away the key.
So where did Thomas get this idea that the King had no right to interfere in a person’s religion.
Alec Gilmore a , Baptist Minister summed it up well in the Guardian paper in May 2006 when he said of Thomas Helwys beliefs.
“Where did he get it from? Not from human reason alone, as did the Greeks, whose respect for reason and free discussion didn't stop them denying it to women, slaves and barbarians. For Helwys it was a fundamental Christian doctrine, based on his reading of scripture, especially the New Testament, where he saw all human beings as God's creatures, epitomised in Jesus and the way he treated people. Persuasion rather than compulsion. The right of the one to proclaim, balanced by the right of the other to reject. The freedom of people to choose their destiny. The need to break down barriers to deliver people from the tyranny of a religion found in Pharisaism; to claim freedom from state control as Paul claimed freedom from the tyranny of Judaism and the law; to release people from ecclesiastical and theological slavery as from all other forms of slavery, and all because we need it not only for ourselves today, but in order for society to preserve it for humanity. (
In Matthew 22:21 Jesus gave a command “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s:
Matthew 22:15-22
Matthew 22:15–22 NLT
Then the Pharisees met together to plot how to trap Jesus into saying something for which he could be arrested. They sent some of their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to meet with him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know how honest you are. You teach the way of God truthfully. You are impartial and don’t play favorites. Now tell us what you think about this: Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” But Jesus knew their evil motives. “You hypocrites!” he said. “Why are you trying to trap me? Here, show me the coin used for the tax.” When they handed him a Roman coin, he asked, “Whose picture and title are stamped on it?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. “Well, then,” he said, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” His reply amazed them, and they went away.
Jesus answer here is critical not just because of what he says but also because of what is behind what he said.
This was a double trap.
The Roman poll tax was a levy of one days wage.
It could not be paid with the common currency in use throughout Israel it had to be paid with a coin known as a denarius.
A denarius was cast with an image of the Emperor on the face of the coin and an inscription “son of god”. The law of Moses as interpreted by the Pharisees saw this as idolatry.
It was deeply resented by the common people as it signified their political subjection to Rome.
This tax was different from the Jewish temple tax, which was part of the requirements of Israel. The Roman poll tax was one of the things that lead to a rebellion 25 years before this encounter.
The result was a massacre of the rebels and an ongoing subversive campaign by a group called the zealots. People who were prepared to use violence and assassination to rid the land of Roman occupation.
On the one hand if Jesus had answered that the tax should be paid the zealots, who were popular among the common people , would oppose him and he would lose support among the masses.
But if he said the tax shouldn’t be paid then he would be encouraging rebellion against Rome and the Pharisees would have grounds to accuse Jesus of rebellion.
The fact they brought with them the Herodians, supporters of Herod Antipas the Jewish puppet King who ruled on behalf of Rome is a clear indication that one way or another they were going to trap Jesus.
Either he would support Rome and be seen to betray the law of Moses and the people, or he would support the law of Moses and the desires of the people and be seen by Rome to be guilty of treason.
Jesus calls them out on this trap and names them for what they are, hypocrites; people who are willing to go along with the system for their own benefit while being happy to add to the misery of the common people through this trap.
If they really were interested in upholding their understanding of the law of Moses would they have had the offensive denarius coin with them?
They were using Caesar’s money so let them also pay his taxes is Jesus’ response.
Here Jesus has distanced himself from the zealots whilst implying that due respect to a pagan government is not incompatible with loyalty to God.
Jesus doesn’t identify how this proper respect is to be worked out in practice, it is the principle that is important.
The things of God are the things of God and the things of the state, whether a democracy, kingdom or dictatorship are the things of the state.
This is the key verse for the concept of freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.

Peter & John - Preaching the Gospel is rendering to God, not Caesar

So what happens when the will of Caesar and the will of God are genuinely different?
We would all say God wins wouldn’t we?
And that is correct as we will see in the example of Peter and John in Acts 4:18-20 in a minute.
But firstly let’s ask another question, what are the reasonable limits to claiming that something is a matter of freedom of religion and must be allowed and not hindered.
This is an important question in our nation right at this moment, not just with the issue of redefining marriage and being able to publicly hold the view that a marriage is only between a man and a woman.
It is an issue in a whole range of areas, hopefully the politicians realize this and there is agreement and good legislation to properly address these issues.
Let me give you a recent example. Sometime ago I mentioned a police officer I know who is a committed Christian and leader in his church.
A couple of street preachers were preaching in the main street of a town. Their manner of preaching was very confrontational and they would get right into peoples faces on the footpath and were actually blocking the entry to legitimate businesses.
Their behavior was so aggressive that people were complaining, the shop owners were losing business and people were avoiding that part of the main street.
The police officer asked them to relocate just a short distance so that they were no longer blocking the footpath, they could continue to preach but please allow people to go about their business. They refused.
After many attempts he had no choice but to arrest them.
I do not believe these men were rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.
There was no issue of restriction on their freedom of religion, just a simple request to show some good manners and common decency towards others.
Nor were they rendering to God the things that are God’s. They were causing offence to the Gospel of Christ.
But consider the situation in Acts 4:1-4 when Peter and John were preaching to a crowd who had gathered because they had witnessed the miracle of the man born lame being healed.
Acts 4:1–4 NLT
While Peter and John were speaking to the people, they were confronted by the priests, the captain of the Temple guard, and some of the Sadducees. These leaders were very disturbed that Peter and John were teaching the people that through Jesus there is a resurrection of the dead. They arrested them and, since it was already evening, put them in jail until morning. But many of the people who heard their message believed it, so the number of men who believed now totaled about 5,000.
Let’s pick the story up again in verse 16.
Acts 4:16-21
Acts 4:16–21 NLT
“What should we do with these men?” they asked each other. “We can’t deny that they have performed a miraculous sign, and everybody in Jerusalem knows about it. But to keep them from spreading their propaganda any further, we must warn them not to speak to anyone in Jesus’ name again.” So they called the apostles back in and commanded them never again to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Do you think God wants us to obey you rather than him? We cannot stop telling about everything we have seen and heard.” The council then threatened them further, but they finally let them go because they didn’t know how to punish them without starting a riot. For everyone was praising God
We know from other passages of Scripture that for the Apostles preaching the Gospel often came with great cost, even martyrdom.
But they preached it anyway, you see the Gospel does cause offence, people do not like hearing that they fall short of God’s standard. People get angry when they perceive in the message of the Gospel the challenge to live right before God.
People also get offended when they hear that they can not be good enough or work hard enough to get to heaven. They want to do it on their own efforts. But you can’t that is why we need Christ.
It isn’t about self righteousness, it isn’t about being free to ignore God and do what you want.
It is about our need to bow before Christ’s Lordship with a repentant attitude and morally pure actions. Quite simply we are all in need of God’s Grace.
But when it comes to preaching the Gospel there is a big difference between being offensive and when you get arrested claiming that your religious liberties are being denied, as the very rude individuals on the main street of that town did; and preaching the Gospel of Christ and suffering as a result.
The Apostles preached the Gospel, some chose to take offence and demanded that they stop, but the Apostles preached the Gospel because they were rendering to God the things that are God’s and they understood that in this case Caesar had no right to stop them.
But they knew there was a cost and they were willing to pay it.
Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations 1787 Epigram on Freedom

Those who give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

—Benjamin Franklin

Let’s never confuse freedom of religion with freedom to be rude and obnoxious.
Let’s also realize that while Caesar has no right whatsoever to compel people to believe or not believe any particular thing there are limits within the church of Christ.

The Limits of Freedom within the Church

1 Corinthians 10:23-24 makes this very plain.
1 Corinthians 10:23–24 NLT
You say, “I am allowed to do anything”—but not everything is good for you. You say, “I am allowed to do anything”—but not everything is beneficial. Don’t be concerned for your own good but for the good of others.
Within the church freedom of religion, what Baptists have historically called soul liberty, has limits.
Those limits are twofold.
The first is very simply are my actions beneficial to my brothers and sisters in Christ.
John Calvin summed up the intent of 1 Corinthians 10 very well when he said.
300 Quotations for Preachers from the Reformation Liberty to Be Used for Edification of Neighbors

Nothing can be plainer than this rule: that our liberty should be used if it conduces to our neighbor’s edification; but if it is not beneficial to our neighbor, it should be abridged.


The second limit is one of sound doctrine.
You can believe whatever you want as far Caesar is concerned, the King, the State, the Government should have no say.
Their responsibility is to good governance, to uphold the peace, as long as your beliefs are not causing real harm to others your religion is no business of the King
But within the church, your beliefs have limits if you are to remain a part of the church.
There is a very true saying,
In essentials unity, in all other things liberty.
There are certain essentials in the church. If you do not hold to them then you are not a part of the true church.
The reformers were convinced of this truth. Thomas Helwys and the early Baptists were fervently declaring this truth.
The Apostle Paul was very clear about this in 2 Timothy 4:1-3
2 Timothy 4:1–3 NLT
I solemnly urge you in the presence of God and Christ Jesus, who will someday judge the living and the dead when he comes to set up his Kingdom: Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching. For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear.
The Apostle Peter when addressing a particular heresy spoke of the tendency for some to lead the church of God away from sound doctrine into error.
2 Peter 3:15-18
2 Peter 3:15–18 NLT
And remember, our Lord’s patience gives people time to be saved. This is what our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him—speaking of these things in all of his letters. Some of his comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture. And this will result in their destruction. You already know these things, dear friends. So be on guard; then you will not be carried away by the errors of these wicked people and lose your own secure footing. Rather, you must grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. All glory to him, both now and forever! Amen.
Thomas Helwys and many others throughout Christian have willingly laid down their lives for the sake of the Gospel.
Baptists, in particular, have been champions of the concept of universal freedom of religion. Freedom not just for Christians who share our beliefs, but freedom for all, even those we fervently disagree with. We need to stand on this truth, whilst be willing to accept the cost when others do not.
Walter Shurden of Mercer University gives us a further challenge
By the way, the strange title of Helwys's book is taken straight from scripture, from 2 Thessalonians 2:7 where Paul speaks of the mystery of lawlessness (iniquity). For Helwys the "mystery of iniquity" was "a working power of Satan," and, given his historical context, he saw this evil especially in the pomp, the power, and the polity of the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches who conspired with governments to deny freedom of conscience. More generally, however, the "mystery of iniquity" was the spirit of domination and oppression (26). We still have some of that, don't we? We still have some people, Baptists among them, who want the government to prefer one religion over another. We still have some people, who, like the archbishops Helwys railed against, allow only one interpretation of the Bible for the people. Although nearly four hundred years old, this book is tragically relevant to our times--to our Baptist times and to our nation's times.
(Thomas Helwys, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity by Walter B. Shurden Callaway Professor of Christianity, Executive Director, The Center for Baptist Studies, Mercer University, Macon, Georgia)
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