LAW OF LIBERTY (1)
It is for the preceding reasons of the previous chapter that the Holy Spirit introduced a new concept into our biblical vocabulary when He spoke of law in reference to Christians. He introduced this new concept when He directed the hand of James to write specifically to some Jewish Christians who were making an effort to justify themselves legally according to their former religiosity under the Jew’s religion. The Spirit wrote: “But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues to abide in it, not being a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man will be blessed in his deed” (Js 1:25).
Notice carefully that the Spirit said “doer of the work,” not doer of the law. In another statement He reminded Christians that they were “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Ep 2:10). Christians were not created in Christ by works of law in order to continue to justify themselves through good works. It is for this reason that we must take a closer look at the purpose of the “law of Christ” in the life of the Christian. The Christian’s relationship with law is somewhat different than the Jew’s relationship with the Sinai covenant.
When we consider the law, or commandments, John reminds us, “By this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments” (1 Jn 2:3). “Whatever we ask, we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight” (1 Jn 3:22). “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” (1 Jn 5:3).
Some may assert that there is a contradiction on this matter between Paul, John and then James in reference to the law of liberty. On the contrary, if we do not forget what the Holy Spirit wrote through Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:15, then there is no contradiction. Christians are obedient to the commandments of God because they walk in thanksgiving of the grace of God that was poured out on them through Jesus Christ. Christians are obedient because they are saved by grace, not in order to become saved. If they were to keep the commandments in order to be saved, then they would be seeking an impossibly, for no one can keep the commandments perfectly in order to be saved.
Knowing this is understanding the difference between religion and Christianity. Religionists are seeking to justify themselves before God through the legal and meritorious keeping of the commandments of God. On the other hand, grace-motived disciples of Christ are working Christians because they are responding to the grace of God that was revealed on the cross. Maybe this could be better understood by what Paul wrote in Philippians 2:12,13:
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed [the commandments of God], not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”
The Philippian Christians obeyed because it was God working in them through the power of the gospel of grace. This simply means that the grace of God motivated (“caused”) them to obey the commandments of God. It was not their desire to meritoriously obey in order to earn the right to be Christians. They were already Christians. Because they were already saved by the grace of God, they continued to work in response to the grace that God had poured out upon them through the Lord Jesus. They were doers of the work because Jesus had worked for them at the cross.
When we connect the dots between Paul’s statement in Philippians 2:12,13 with what he said in Ephesians 2:10, then everything is clearly understood: “For we are His worksmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” The Philippians were already in Christ because they had been baptized into Christ (Rm 6:3-6; Gl 3:23-26). They had obeyed the gospel in response to the gospel of God’s grace. The same motive for their obedience of the gospel continued to work their lives to obey the commandments of God. John’s point, therefore, is that we manifest our love of God through our obedient response to His grace.
There was nothing meritorious in John’s mind when he wrote concerning obedience to the commandments of God. He simply stated the matter in a different way than how Paul expressed the same thing. If we love God for loving us, then we will respond to all that He would communicate to us concerning how we must conduct our lives. There is nothing meritorious about such obedience. We work because we are saved, not in order to be saved. It was for this reason that John began the very letter from which we have quoted, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8). John says that we manifest our love for God by keeping His commandments, but at the same time, we cannot keep the commandments perfectly. This is exactly Paul’s point in writing the books of Romans and Galatians. We are all “cleansed sinners” by God’s grace because we continue to walk in response to His grace. John so said this in the following statement: “If we [Christians] walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 Jn 1:7).
• Bible authority assumes grace: If this one point is understood, then one can understand the vast difference between the Sinai law that Josiah sought to restore, and the law of liberty that God has established with each Christian through Jesus. Josiah sought to restore a legal obedience to those commandments of the covenant that led to the continued identity of the nation of Israel, as well as Israel’s continued covenant relationship with God as a nation. In order to be preserved as a covenanted nation with God, Israel’s obedience to the Sinai law was mandatory. By reinstituting the commandments of the Sinai covenant, therefore, Josiah restored the nation of Israel to a covenant relationship with God for the remainder of his short life.
But it is different with the law of liberty by which we live as Christians in a covenant with God. Our covenant with God today is individual, not national. When the grace of God was revealed at the cross, “the righteousness of God” was revealed “from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘The just will live by faith’” (Rm 1:17). We individually walk by faith, whereas the nation of Israel had to walk by a national commitment to keep the law of their covenant with God. Individual Jews could sin, but their individual sins would not make void the national covenant that they had with God. However, if the nation as a whole sinned, then they were in trouble. Josiah sought to restore the nation from national sin, not necessarily individual sin.
The Holy Spirit used the national sin of Israel to illustrate our individual covenant relationship with God that is based on our faithful walk in response to His righteousness. We see this in Paul’s following statement: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rm 1:18). When Josiah initiated a restoration in Israel, he realized that God was about to unleash judgment on the nation because the people had suppressed the truth in their willingness to follow after their own unrighteousness. The same judgment will occur in our lives individually if we seek to follow after our own unrighteousness in order to live an ungodly life. Israel’s judgment came in time, but ours will occur at the end of time.
We must not forget that ungodly behavior on the part of any individual can never find atonement in our supposed meritorious performance of law, “for all have sinned [individually] and fall short of the glory of God” (Rm 3:23). Therefore, the Holy Spirit asks, “You who make your boast of law [keeping], do you dishonor God through breaking the law?” (Rm 2:23). If one would seek to keep the law of God in order to boast in his law-keeping, then he dishonors God who says all have sinned. There is no such thing as establishing ourselves to be righteous before God on the basis of our perfect keeping of God’s law.
No one can keep law perfectly in order to be justified before God through the obedience of any system of law. Christians are “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rm 3:24). Therefore, “by [His] grace you are saved through [your] faith, and that not of yourselves [through perfect law-keeping], it is the gift of God” (Ep 2:8). We are simply not justified by “works, lest anyone should boast” (Ep 2:9).
When we speak of the authority of the word of God, therefore, we cannot be referring to a legal justification of ourselves through law keeping. No one can be justified before God on the basis of keeping law perfectly. We are saved by the gospel of God’s grace in spite of our efforts to keep his commandments. “And if by grace,” Paul concluded, “then it is no more by works [of law], otherwise grace is no more grace. [But if is by works, it is no longer grace, otherwise work is no longer work]” (Rm 11:6).
We must be careful, therefore, when we speak concerning the authority of the word of God. The reference to doing things “biblically” can often in the minds of some mean something totally different that what the New Testament explains when one is walking in the word of the Lord. In fact, when some people say they are “biblical” in their obedience, they are possibly working contrary to the grace of God, if not working against the grace of God.
The authority of the word of God does not mean keeping law legally in a perfect manner in order to justify oneself before God. If we come to this conclusion in our relationship with the word of God, then we set aside the grace of God. If we are perfect in obedience, what need do we have of grace? We have become self-righteous, basing our salvation on our supposed perfect obedience to a system of law. Therefore, the affirmation to have Bible authority in all matters of faith cannot mean to legally keep law perfectly in order to justify oneself before God. If we believe such, then we have set aside the gospel of God’s grace. We have become self-righteous in our assertion to be able to keep law in a manner by which we can proclaim our own salvation before God and others.
[Next in series: Sept. 20]