Law of Liberty

sinai

Overlooking the Sinai area in Egypt.

 

“But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”

James 1:25

Lately, “the law of liberty”, i.e. freedom from obedience to the Law, has been a topic around here. I just don’t see it. I do find the passages where people are validating their freedom…but, honestly, I think we should be cautious. Does it seem slightly odd, that God would instruct His people how to walk in righteousness, how to draw near to Himself, and then “free” them from that. That isn’t even something that a follower of God should want to be free from even if they could be. 

Before you claim liberty from the Way that God himself established as righteousness, you may want to study the topic for yourself. There is too much at stake to just take man’s word for it. So, don’t.

Don’t even take my word for it.

Search through all the Scriptures that you hold to that proclaim “Christian liberty” or freedom from obeying God’s commands. Really evaluate who the author was, who the audience was, and how the English translation lines up with the original text. This is not difficult to do with resources today.

People have told me they are giving up on God’s Torah, His commandments, because it threatens this idea of “Christian liberty”. I think we should be more concerned with what God says about His Law than upholding an idea that may not have a solid foundation in the Word. Seriously, if God never sanctioned this liberation from His Law, then it is by definition a rebellion.

There are two main writers who are often understood to proclaim this freedom from obedience to God’s Law; Paul and James. God states that there is one law for Israel and Gentile and His Law is for every generation, and later the Messiah reiterates that no part of the Law will pass away until the disappearance heaven and earth. When we begin to read other writings of the Apostles we must keep this in mind.

“For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”

Matthew 5:18

So, first of all why would Paul and James teach something contrary to YHWH and our Messiah? And on such a significant topic, to obey or not to obey! Wouldn’t it be heretical to preach anything that opposes the Word of God? Most of us would, or should agree on this point. We should not accept any word, even if handed to us by angels, that adds or takes away from what was written. This includes Paul and James.

Here’s the thing, God’s Word clearly states that we are free from condemnation of our inability to follow the Law. Nowhere does it state that we are liberated from obedience of the Law because of this grace. This passage by Paul below is so powerful! It is important to note the contrast between the law of the Spirit and the law of sin and death. We no longer follow the law of sin and death, of which even one transgression leads to death. We have been freed in Christ Jesus to follow the law of the Spirit.

This is not a different law but a difference in the way we walk it out. One way is walking in the flesh, trying to be perfect righteousness which is an impossibility. Paul says here, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.” The other way is to live according to the Spirit of life who has enabled us to submit to God’s Law.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law,weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us,who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

Romans 8:1-8

Now here is the real question.

Is it possible that “Christian liberty” isn’t really what Paul and James meant in their writings? Could it be that they were not trying to undermine the Law of God? Who were these men and, if they were not heretics, what could they have been saying?

Paul was a Pharisee of Pharisee, even to his death. He loved the Law. He advocated that the Law be taught and even Gentiles learn from it in synagogues every Sabbath. Even on trial in front of Pharisees, as recorded in Acts, they could find no fault against him. He was in complete obedience to the Law. In Romans, Paul specifically says that we should not continue in sin and lawlessness just because we are covered by grace. We should uphold the Law because we value the ways of God.

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!”

Romans 6:1-2a

After Paul dies, Peter writes to communities where Paul preached and cautioned them about the confusing nature of Paul’s writings. Peter warned that people easily and often times twist Paul’s words to promote lawlessness. Peter, obviously, understood that abolishing the Law was not Paul’s message.

“There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.”

2 Peter 3:16-17

Then we have James. Often, people talk about audience…and whether or not passages apply to Christians. Mostly, it is used when people don’t want accept the practical application of a text. But, I never hear people arguing over this book. It is always taken as the faithful way in which Christians should live…and yet it is written to the Twelve Tribes. He’s a Jew writing to Jews around the world. Interesting.

So, what does James have to say about “Christian liberty”? He spends a lot of his time drawing out application of the Law, explaining what it means to follow the Laws that are part of the Torah. He writes about the truth that faith without works cannot save anyone. James, actually says that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. He instructs God’s people not just to be hearers of the word of the Law but doers of it! He states that hearers and doers of the perfect law, “the law of liberty”, will be blessed.

“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”

James 1:22-25

Here’s the thing…most Christians, stake their claim to freedom here. This “law of liberty” is defined by present-day teachers as “Christian liberty” not to feel obligated to obey God’s law. And in fact, they say that we are liberated from the confines of His Law. But, really look at the passage! And look at James! Would a Jew writing to the Twelve Tribes of Israel be commanding them to follow any other law than the Torah? Even Christians can read that God commanded Israel to keep His Law for every generation.

James is clearly telling Israel, who has been dispersed among the nations, to continue to listen to Torah and follow it! You may or may not agree that believers are part of Israel and should, therefore, apply this to your own life. But this definitely is not giving license to Gentiles to abandon the Torah and follow a a “law of liberty”. As we can see above in Romans 8, the law of the Spirit is life and peace. James says it is perfect and liberating. Not that we are liberated from it.

Also, and very interestingly, Paul and James actually have a confrontation about this very topic! Paul comes back to Jerusalem after preaching among Gentiles and Jews in the diaspora. James is concerned that Paul is being misunderstood (obviously a common theme). People all over think that Paul is teaching Jews to disregard the Law. To show everyone that this is absolutely not the case, James asks Paul to accompany four men under a vow and go to the temple and pay the requirement to purify themselves. This was not to satisfy some cultural or man-made ritual. This actually was a law in Torah. Paul would, thus, show that he lived in obedience to the Law.

“Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law.”

Acts 21:24

On a topic for another day, Paul and James decide to require a few mandatory laws from Torah for Gentiles who were newly joining congregations. This was to satisfy political and cultural desires of the people, not to set the limit of Gentile obedience. Paul states later in Acts, that the Gentiles were expected to attend synagogue every Sabbath and grow in their knowledge of the teachings of Moses. Then at the point they are convicted by the Spirit they are to be doers of the perfect law and not just hearers. What grace! That is a perfect law of liberty.

It was out of a great love for people that Paul and James require of Gentiles only a few laws of Torah. It gives grace and freedom for those as they grow in their desire to love God through obedience. We are on a journey here. To instantly require Gentiles, with no previous knowledge of the law, to walk in full obedience would be ungracious and unprofitable.

Acts of obedience should be in response to faith.

It is, then, out of a great love for God that His children pursue His righteousness. As they begin to learn about God and His ways, they yearn to live in observance to the law. Just like Paul and James. The Gentiles were given Sabbath after Sabbath to reflect on the law as it was being taught. But, as James writes, once there is faith, it must be demonstrated by walking in the law. This is liberty.

The key for Paul seems to be that works of the Law are nothing before accepting the grace of God through faith. How true this is! Any act of obedience before faith in the grace of the Messiah is meaningless. This is precisely why they wanted to place only a few requirements on Gentiles before they were moved to obedience by the Spirit! It is presumptuous and wrong to assume that we can earn our salvation through works of obedience. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue works of obedience.

The key for James seems to be that after receiving grace from the Messiah our faith must be demonstrated by our works of the Law. Anyone who does not obey the perfect law, this law of liberty, does not show true faith. Considering James’ commitment to the Torah demonstrated in Acts and the fact that this was written to the Twelve Tribes, this “law of liberty” is probably not a “Christian” law that proclaims freedom from obedience to Torah. James zealously pushed for Torah obedience among Jews. He was fervent in his efforts to clear up confusion that anyone would teach otherwise. And, yet, here we are insisting that James teaches that Christians have a new “liberty” that allows them the freedom to walk their own way.

So the point is this: Paul was a Pharisee who did not want to be perceived as disregarding the Law. James was a firm defender of this Law, and seemingly even more aware of the misunderstandings than Paul. Neither Paul or James would have been teaching anything against teaching or following the Law.

Paul and James are the most prominent writers who are interpreted to have taught on freedom from the Law. I think these passages show this to be shaky understanding.

“Christian liberty” sounds good…it sounds like it should be righteous and freeing and…just better. In fact, it sounds so good that people don’t even want to look into it for fear of discovering that it is not what the Bible teaches.

Could “liberty”, defined as freedom from God’s Law, actually be rebellion?

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