top of page

Individual Soul Liberty

This article is part of our current article and Text-Driven Podcast series, "Distinctly Baptist."

Our discussion concerning what it means to be Baptist has taken on a journey of biblical ecclesiology. Being a Baptist is not tied to one’s heritage or tradition. Instead, being a Baptist means that a person individually decides to live their life in accordance with Scripture concerning God’s teaching of local churches. To help us think more thoroughly about God’s design for the church, we have utilized the acrostic “Baptist.” This acrostic provides the New Testament template for what God designed for Christians to reflect in their community together. 

One aspect of the New Testament that is particularly interesting to me is the use of “one another” language in the epistles. Biblical authors like Paul, Peter, James, and John give commands that can only be understood in the context of a community. It is important to note that Christianity is a communal faith. It is a faith that is meant to be lived out within the context of other Christians. There is not a concept of biblical Christianity that adopts a lone-ranger perspective. Instead, to grow in Christian maturity, you have to be with other Christians. 

The “being with other Christians” is the church. It is incoherent, according to the New Testament, for a Christian to say that they love Jesus but want nothing to do with the church. To love Jesus is to love the church. The church is the bride of Christ. Jesus loves His bride. Therefore, to say that you do not love the church is to say that you do not love Jesus’s bride. 

Now, I want you to think about making such a claim. Imagine someone were to say to you that they like you, but they cannot stand being around your spouse. Such a statement would most definitely create a rift between you and your friend. When we disparage the church and discredit God’s design of the church, we in essence tell Jesus that we like Him but we want nothing to do with His bride. Such a statement is most assuredly going to cause an issue in your spiritual growth and maturity. To love Jesus is to love what Jesus loves. 

It is upon that basis that a series like this one on the doctrine of the church is important. As we have learned in each article more about God’s design for the church, we are conversely learning how to love what Jesus loves. Just as a refresher, we have learned the following truths about God’s design for the church. One, we learned that God designed the church to function under biblical authority. Two, we learned that God designed the church to be autonomous local congregations. Three, we learned that God designed the church to have the entire congregation be a priesthood. Four, we learned that God designed the church to have two ordinances: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Our attention now turns to the “i” in our Baptist acronym. The “i” stands for “Individual Soul Liberty.” 

To help us think about “Individual Soul Liberty,” I will answer two questions. First, I will answer the question, “What is Individual Soul Liberty?” Second, I will answer the question, “Why does Individual Soul Liberty matter?” By the answer that I will provide to these two questions, you will see the significance of Individual Soul Liberty for your own spiritual health and the health of God’s church. 

What is Individual Soul Liberty?

The first question that we need to consider is, “What is Individual Soul Liberty?” This question deals with the definition of soul liberty. Sometimes you will hear this topic addressed under the heading of “soul competency.” Essentially, individual soul liberty addresses the freedom of believers and unbelievers towards matters related to their conscience. 

History Lesson on Soul Liberty

To help us think about this topic, let’s go back in history. Prior to the Reformation, there their was a movement among Catholic clergy to bind the conscience of parishioners to particular practices no matter if it contradicted Scripture or their personal conscience. During this time in church history, a rejection of the Catholic dogma was viewed as an offense of high treason against the church. Man’s freedom was restricted to only that which was deemed appropriate by the Catholic leadership. 

Now, it is important to note that during this time in history many parishioners were not able to study Scripture for themselves. The Bible was only available in the form of the Latin Vulgate, which meant that it was not accessible to the parishioners of the Catholic Church. Church services during this period of history were exclusively done in Latin. Therefore the doctrine which the people had was only the doctrine that was taught by the clergy of the Catholic Church.

An incredible action occurred during the Reformation, which greatly impacted our discussion on individual soul liberty. That action was the Bible being translated into the vernacular of the parishioners. As the Bible became accessible to more people, the conscience of the parishioners were forced to make a distinction. They had to decide whether the dogma of the Catholic Church was accurate or was the teaching of the Catholic Church in opposition to the plain reading of Scripture. Having the Bible in the vernacular of the people ignited the discussion of soul liberty. 

As you could imagine, many faithful brothers and sisters in the Lord lost their life because of their commitment to see the Bible be available to the people. In some way, the understanding of individual soul liberty cost hundreds of Christians their life. By virtue of the sacrifice of those Christians who went before us to protect our individual soul liberty, I think it is a worthy enterprise for us to dig deeper into the biblical roots of soul competency.

The belief in individual soul liberty is not just a philosophical or practical ideal. Individual soul liberty is a theological truth rooted in Scripture. To start, let’s consider an example where individual soul liberty is practiced by believers. In Acts 17:11 the Bible speaks of a group of people known as the Berreans. This group of Christians in the First Century are described in this manner, “they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). The Berreans were convinced that they had an obligation to study Scripture for themselves. The Berreans were not going to allow their conscience to be bound to the teaching of the Apostles, but were going to allow Scripture to be their final authority for belief and practice. 

Another example that we can consider is from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. In his letter, he instructs the Corinthians to not bind each other’s conscience concerning matters where the Bible provides liberty in Christ. Here is the context for Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians. In Corinth, the believers were eating food that was set aside for the purpose of idol worship. Some believers were eating the food that was set aside for idol worship with a clear conscience knowing that the food is not the issue (1 Corinthians 8:8). However, by their eating of the food that was sacrificed to an idol, other Christians were spiritually weak and seeing such an act as syncretistic to Biblical Christianity. What is of particular note is that Paul does not tell the more mature Christians to impose their view on the weak Christians by forcing them to conform to their position. Instead, Paul instructs the mature Christians to restrain their liberty of eating the food sacrificed to idols for the sake of their other church members. This adominition by Paul to the Corinthians shows individual soul liberty because he does not allow the mature Christians to bind the conscience of the weak Christians. 

Why does Individual Soul Liberty Matter?

It is critical that we uphold the teaching of individual soul liberty. The ramifications of this particular teaching connects to several core doctrines. One doctrine that would be impacted if individual soul liberty was not practiced is justification. The Bible teaches that justification is an act of God declaring a person righteous by virtue of His grace and faith. Each man has to respond by faith to the grace of God. God’s righteousness is applied particularly to those who respond by faith. 

No person is able to impose their received righteousness from God upon another. Parents cannot give the righteousness they have in Christ to their children. Pastors cannot infuse the righteousness they have received in Christ to those attending church. Each person is individually responsible before God. If individual soul liberty is not practiced, then scores of people will be trusting in the faith of someone else for their salvation only to find themselves condemned when they stand before God. Individual soul liberty protects the doctrine of justification from universalism. 

Another doctrine that would be impacted by a loss of individual soul liberty would be the New Testament Church. Two truths are bedrock for having a biblical ecclesiology. First, you have to hold to Biblical authority. Flowing from biblical authority is biblical orthodoxy. Individual soul liberty helps to maintain biblical authority because it does not put the authority of local churches in the presbyter’s interpretation. The orthodoxy of the church is guarded by the entire congregation. Each individual church member has the freedom in Christ to read, study, and interpret Scripture. Second, you have to hold to regenerate church membership. The church is composed of regenerate people in covenant together to exalt their Savior, edify the saints, and evangelize the sinner. 

If justification is God’s righteousness individually applied by individual faith, then any imposed justification from another is no justification whatsoever. Therefore, a person who has received justification through an imposed action remains unregenerate even though their name is recorded on the membership roll. 


While individual soul liberty is critical, avoiding ignorance is also critical. Prior to the Reformation, individual soul liberty was not readily practiced in local churches. It was not practiced because people were purposefully kept ignorant by the Catholic Church clergy. It was not until men and women sacrificed their lives to make sure church members like you and me could read the Bible in a common spoken language that individual soul liberty was practiced again. This sacrifice by these faithful Christians is what brought individual soul liberty back to the forefront of the church. 

Today, we face another crisis of individual soul liberty. However, today’s crisis is different from the one of the Reformation. Today’s crisis is a result of willful ignorance. The Bible is accessible to virtually everyone; however, church members willfully refuse to read it. For they would rather follow blindly their pastor than pick up a Bible and study it. This willful ignorance has produced a biblically illiterate church. Even when individual soul liberty is exercised by Christians today, it is a liberty that has no biblical foundation. For the liberty practiced today is rooted more in culture’s dogma than Christian orthodoxy. This crisis is serious. Therefore, my warning is to not embrace individual soul liberty without also embracing individual biblical literacy. You need not only an open mind, but you also need an open Bible. Read your Bible. Study your Bible. Live a text-driven life.

The "Distinctly Baptist" series will also be on the Text-Driven Podcast. You can listen to the Text-Driven Podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or at


bottom of page