A Lutheran’s Argument For Religious Freedom

There are a lot of debates going around now about religious freedom, morality, and related topics.  There is also a lot of violence throughout the world, that testify to the consequences these debates have.  So one of my classmates recently wrote theological defense/championing of religious freedom.  It’s concise, well-reasoned, theologically sound, and well worth reading.  So, with his permission, here it is:


by Robbie Ketcham



The Gospel of Jesus Christ, rightly understood as God’s will to save the world by God’s grace and love alone (Jn. 3:16), not only allows but demands that one not restrict another’s religious or moral freedom in God’s name.



1.) Some of the most notable public displays of religion have often depicted God as legalistic, judgmental or condemnatory. Further, the promoters of this view of God have often taken it upon themselves, either individually or institutionally, to restrict the religious and moral freedom of others, under the supposed authority of God.

a.) This has been most apparent in the rise of militant Islam, including the declaration of religious war against the United States by al-Qaida; and barbaric interpretations and executions of Sharia law in Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Taliban-controlled areas of the Afghan-Pakistan region.

b.) The Christian Church has historically also misused the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a basis for denying religious freedom to others, especially in the Medieval period of the Church.

c.) While the United States has not committed such institutional actions denying religious freedom, certain individuals and so-called Christian churches in the United States have also misused the Gospel so as to intimidate or restrict the freedom of belief of others,  such as in attacks or bigotry against those of other faiths or intentionally desecrating the sacred texts of other faiths.

d.)  Others, on both the “conservative” and “liberal” wings of American Christianity, have advocated for legal limitations on people’s moral freedoms, seeking to impose by law their own sense of personal morality (often regarding sexuality or speech, and using such euphemisms as “family values”) or their own sense of social morality (often regarding the distribution of wealth or taxation, and using such euphemisms as “social justice”).

e.) Still others, while not seeking to act through physical violence and intimidation or through legal action, have propagated corrupt interpretations of the Christian faith, such as claiming the God “hates” or condemns others based on their morality, especially in regards to sexuality.

2.) These images of religion have, especially in recent years, led to a backlash against organized religion – and, in Europe and the United States, against Christianity in particular.

a.) Several recent surveys have shown that non-Christians’ perception of Christians is as judgmental or intolerant. (There have been several articles that I cannot retain at the moment, but here is one: http://www.probe.org/site/c.fdKEIMNsEoG/b.5281867/k.C5A7/unChristian_Is_Christianitys_Image_Hurting_Christs_Image.htm)

b.) The recent movement of “evangelical atheism,” epitomized chiefly through writings such as Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and Christopher Hitchens’ “God is not Great,” attempt to refute religion altogether, but are chiefly a condemnation of this legalistic idea of religion. (Again, I fear I’ve not the link at the moment, but in an article with the London Guardian, Dawkins seemed to acknowledge this – in response to a criticism that his work did not as fully grapple with theologians such as Barth, Tillich or Bonhoeffer, he said that he was confronting religion as most people saw it – which he described as being chiefly that of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, etc.)

3.) Given that such an image of a judgmental God seems to correlate with increasing disillusionment with Christianity, the issue of religious tolerance and freedom is therefore neither merely one of political correctness nor merely one of social niceness. It is, in fact, a theological issue that could well determine the future health of the Christian church in the West. Indeed, one can claim that the promoters of such a judgmental image of God are “turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing [the people] and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1:7). As such, these false prophets and teachers must be condemned not just on the basis of political correctness or social propriety, but on the basis of true theology and the true Gospel of Christ, lest Satan work through them as “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Mt. 7:15) and so tear down people’s faith in the true Gospel of God’s love and grace, manifest in Jesus the Christ.



1.) The ultimate basis of authority on Christian doctrine is the Incarnate Word of God, Jesus the Christ. For in the Christ, “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). Hence, the Incarnate Word is also the Word of “grace and truth.” The Incarnate Word is the Word of grace, in that the crucified and resurrected Christ ensures all God’s chosen of salvation and everlasting life by God’s love and freely given grace alone, regardless of works. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3:17). The Incarnate Word is the Word of truth, as Christ is the one and only true Son of God, “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn. 14:6).

2.) The Protestant canon of the Holy Bible is the Inspired Word of God (2 Tim. 3:16). In its original writing and rightly interpreted in light of the Incarnate Word of God, the Bible is an authoritative and infallible witness to God’s desire to be in right relationship with humanity, which includes God’s desire for right human living (the Law; Rom. 7:7), the human inability to so live rightly (the condemnation of the Law; Rom. 7:8-14), and which culminates in the salvific death and resurrection of the Christ, through which God’s relationship with humanity is forever restored (the Gospel; Rom. 3:23-27).

3.) The ancient and ecumenical Creeds of the Church are authoritative accounts of the Christian faith, insofar as they are in line with the Incarnate and Inspired Word of God.

4.) The unaltered Augsburg Confession of 1530 and the Small Catechism of Martin Luther are authoritative accounts of the Christian faith, and in particular of the Gospel of God’s salvation of humanity by grace and love alone without regard to human works, insofar as they are in line with #1-3.

5.) The other writings of the Book of Concord of 1580 are enlightening and useful reflections on the Christian faith, insofar as they are in line with #1-4.

6.) The Holy Spirit’s continued action in the proclamation and witness of the Church is authoritative, insofar as it is in line with #1-4.



1.) As noted in Art. III Sect. 1 of this paper, Jesus Christ is the one and only Son of God. As Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). While this does not mean that a doctrinal belief in Jesus Christ in this world is a condition for salvation (for indeed, such would make doctrine itself a work, and would restrict God’s freedom of grace; see also Karl Rahner’s concept of “anonymous Christians”), it does mean that adhering to the Christian faith and being baptized in the name of the Triune God is the one assurance of salvation, for “the one who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mk. 16:16). Therefore, this argument in support of the freedom of belief should not be misconstrued as a relativistic view that minimizes the centrality of the Christian faith.

2.) Despite the centrality of Christian faith, however, neither the Incarnate nor the Inspired Word of God suggests that one should force his belief on another through law, force or intimidation. Indeed, the Incarnate and Inspired Word of God instead argues forcefully in favor of upholding another’s freedom of belief.

a.) The Incarnate Word of God is Jesus Christ, in whom is “grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). This grace is God’s free gift given through the death and resurrection of the Christ, and is freely given to those whom God chooses. Grace and faith, therefore, cannot be obtained through human effort (see Luther’s Small Catechism, on Art. III of the Creed). While God does work through human means to spread the Gospel (see Augsburg Confession, Art. V), any human attempt to force one’s belief upon another runs contrary to God’s sole independence to give grace and faith to those whom He wishes.

b.) The Inspired Word of God – that is, the Protestant canon of the Holy Bible – repeatedly shows Jesus explicitly refusing to force his beliefs on others. For instance, Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the desert with all the kingdoms of the world would have given Jesus the power to force all people to follow a particular belief. However, Jesus explicitly refused such temptation – which, Scripture notes, would have actually been a worship of Satan (Mt. 4:8-10). Even if one considers another belief to be an enemy of his own faith, Jesus does not allow for one to act with force, but with love for enemies and without judgment or condemnation (Lk. 6:27-42). When a Samaritan village refused to welcome Jesus, the disciples asked if they should command fire to come down from heaven and consume the village. But Jesus rebuked the disciples for such thoughts (Lk. 9:51-55). In sending out 70 followers to proclaim the Kingdom of God, Jesus warned that some would reject the message, but he did not order the followers to force any belief, but rather to leave the town and leave any retribution to God alone (Lk. 10:10-12). Even at his arrest, when a disciple attacked a slave of the high priest with a sword, Jesus rebuked such force, saying, “Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt. 22:51-52). Therefore, Scripture clearly shows that it is against God’s will to force another into one’s own beliefs. While one can try to persuade others through proclamation, it is the Holy Spirit alone that can inspire faith and belief – not any human force of sword, law or intimidation.

c.) It is true that some components of the Old Testament Law, such as the rule of cherem or cities “devoted to destruction” (e.g., Deut. 20:16-18) could be read as allowing for religious warfare. However, such a reading for today is out of line with both the context of the Mosaic Law – which had its roots in an Israelite theocracy that had been overturned by Jesus’ claim that his Kingdom is “not of this world” (Jn. 18:36) — and is out of line with the overall theme of the Inspired Word as grounded in the Incarnate Word, as described in #2a. Further, even such texts were not efforts to force others into Israelite belief, but were attempts to defend the Israelites against others’ beliefs (Deut. 20:18) — therefore, they cannot be used as a basis for attempting to force or intimidate another into adopting one’s own faith. Indeed, the Old Testament also witnesses to God’s sole role in judging the righteousness of other nations and peoples (Isa. 2:3-4), saying that “vengeance is mine” alone (Deut. 32:35, cf. Rom. 12:19). Therefore, the Mosaic Law cannot be used as a basis for forcing or intimidating another into accepting one’s own beliefs.



1.) It is undoubtedly true that a great deal of religious teaching is on morality. The Old Testament Law, the teachings of Jesus and the writings of the New Testament all include numerous exhortations for a moral life. Likewise, the whole basis of Christian faith – that Jesus Christ came to redeem sinners (1 Tim. 1:15) by God’s grace and love alone – would be meaningless if there were no such thing as sin, or that which separates humanity from God.

2.) Despite the wealth of teachings on morality, however, both the Incarnate and Inspired Word of God suggests that one should not attempt to force one’s moral code upon another by force, law, threat of divine condemnation or intimidation, but should instead seek to persuade others toward right action as a response to God’s grace and love.

a.) The Word became Incarnate not to condemn the world, but so that all the world might be saved (Jn. 3:16-17). This salvation cannot be obtained by human action alone (Gal. 2:15), not can it be lost by human action alone (Gal. 3:25-29, Rom. 8:31-39; see also, Augsburg Confession Art. IV). Therefore, if God has chosen to freely justify and save humanity, and in so doing free it of the condemnatory demands of the Law, no human can try to use force, human law or the threat of divine condemnation (the heresy of Pelagianism) to force obedience to a particular moral code.

b.) The Inspired Word of God also refutes any attempt to force moral obedience upon another. Although the Mosaic Law might have been initially used as a legal code for ancient Israel (that is, the “First Use of the Law”), even then God maintained His covenant with Israel despite its transgressions (see, e.g., Ex. 32:14) and remained a God “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (e.g., Ps. 145:8). This steadfast love came to its full manifestation in the death and resurrection of the Christ, which fully freed humanity from the consequences of the Law (Gal. 2:15; Rom. 3:21-22). Moral demands thus become means by which humanity is shown its sin, and is drawn to Christ for forgiveness (the “Second Use of the Law”). God still does desire humanity to follow God’s will, but not as a demand but as an invitation to live a new life in Christ (Rom. 6:1-4; the so-called “Third Use of the Law”). This is not truly “Law” anymore, but free invitation, for breaking such “law” will not carry any eternal or eschatological consequences, as Christ has overcome the full burden of sin (it is true, of course, that human actions can have consequences in this world). Again, Jesus’ refusal of Satan’s temptation of worldly kingdoms manifests this, as an earthly King Jesus could have forced all to follow his moral code. Rather, however, Jesus says that “my kingdom is not of this world” (Jn. 18:36), allowing others the moral freedom even to kill him. Likewise, Paul refused to force Philemon to free Oenesimus, but instead appeals to him on the basis of love (Phm. 8-9). Paul also encourages the Corinthians to give of themselves, but “not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). Therefore, Scripture shows that God does have moral expectations for humanity, but that no human should take upon himself the power to force his own morality upon another.



1.) Any attempt to use force, law, violence or intimidation as a means to make another adopt a particular belief, or to force not to change beliefs, should be most strongly condemned.

2.) Any attempt to use force, law, violence or intimidation as a means to make another adopt a particular moral code, or to force one into following certain actions on the basis of divine will alone, should be most strongly condemned.

a.) While the realities of civil society do demand some degree of law and restraint, these laws should be based as much as possible on the practical and utilitarian benefits to society, liberty and good order, and should not be based on one’s perception of “God’s will.”

3.) Even if disagreeing strongly with another belief or moral code, one should act with respect if trying to encourage or exhort another to adopt one’s own beliefs or morality.

4.) Those adopting such beliefs as outlined here should proclaim this Gospel of freedom in God’s love and grace, over against the false prophets and teachers who would distort God’s will into a means of coercion, intimidation, legalism, moralism or judgmentalism.

5.) Prayers should be frequently made to God for wisdom and guidance so that even those professing these beliefs might avoid corrupting the God’s will into a means of legalism, judgmentalism and condemnation, and for God to work God’s loving will, despite humanity’s resistance and inclination to cling to its own desire for control and power.

And with such prayers are the foregoing theses humbly submitted.


Some disclaimers:

I do recognize that parts of this might alienate friends both on the right and the left of me – which I’ve actually sort of come to expect. 🙂 I also recognize that not all of this is necessarily “Lutheran,” though it is strongly influenced by my understanding of the Confessions (see “Basis of Authority”). Hence, I title this “A Lutheran’s argument” rather than the more basic “a Lutheran argument” or the more vague “a Christian argument.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s